By Paul Kolbet
A lot of us are feeling unhappy right now. There is nothing wrong with that. Being happy during a pandemic may not be a thing. If you are unhappy, it is probably because one of your human needs is not being met. We human beings have a lot of needs and, depending upon who you are, there may be any number of needs not being met right now. Those needs, however, are always spiritually fruitful to work on. One that is very often overlooked entirely, but is being felt in a particularly acute way right now by many people, is the need to be seen. Or, more precisely, the need to see oneself being seen.
Our current social isolation is an expression of the love we have for ourselves and for one another, but it feels like rejection and failure. Other people’s avoidance of us is the loving thing to do amid the contagion, but it does not feel like love as we are accustomed to understand it. We care about how we are seen by others and extrapolate from it any number of notions that are fundamental to how we feel about ourselves and our world. The experience of feeling seen and understood by other people is profoundly comforting. It contributes a great deal to our sense of self-worth. This is mostly easily seen in the faces of young children. All of us who have been blessed at one time or another with having young children in our lives have had the experience of them calling out saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” They need that and they ask for that repeatedly.
That need to be seen doesn’t go away, does it? We adults are rather expert at hiding our needs from one another. Or, even better, hiding them from ourselves. But that childhood need to be seen, to be witnessed, to be understood, known, and valued, does not go away. The pandemic has mostly taken that away. Each of us is likely experiencing a profound loss of something we need and usually depend upon to be well. Even the most excellent “Quaran-team” is no substitute for the rest of us. Not a few of us have only come to realize through this crisis how much we benefited from the friendly recognition of strangers who respond positively to us in the daily course of comings and goings. Without the feeling of being seen favorably, other feelings creep into the void such as anxiety, vigilance, grief, or a general feeling of lack of safety. It may be that some of these feelings are acquiring their current power because of the deficit we have of feeling seen and valued.
For example, we are told that on the first Easter the risen Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, then the other disciples, except the Gospel of John notes that there was an exception, Thomas. Thomas was one of the original twelve, but wasn’t present when the others had their experience of the risen Jesus. When told by his friends Thomas famously exclaims, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). For saying this, he has been remembered ever since as doubting Thomas. Yet he is not that different from the other disciples. Mary Magdalene was the first to visit the empty tomb. When she encountered the risen Lord, she thought that he was a gardener (Jn 20:15). She did not recognize him until she heard him call her by name, “Mary.” Only after receiving that personal acknowledgement did she go to tell his disciples the good news. They did not believe her (Lk 24:11). When he did appear to them, they mistook him for a ghost (Lk 24:37). Really, all the disciples came to believe because of an experience they had of the risen Jesus. Thomas was just the last one.
When Jesus appeared to Thomas, he said to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27). To which Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). The traditional sermon on the passage has to do with the importance of adding faith to reason. This is no doubt part of the story, especially since Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). Could it be, though, that what was most transformative in the moment where he encountered the risen Christ wasn’t so much what Thomas saw as the experience he had of being seen?
Anybody who has ever have a class in school called “Communications” likely remembers on nearly the first day being told something like “90% of what people understand is nonverbal.” Our words are just as small portion of any personal interaction we have with anyone. There is so much more going on because we are people not machines. How did Thomas know it was Jesus, really Jesus? Sure, seeing the scars on his hands and the wound on his side, but, more fundamentally, it was the feeling he recognized, the feeling of being seen by the Jesus he knew. And more importantly, being seen by the Jesus he knew who knew him. That experience is what the Gospel writer captures so well by showing how it leads to life. The church has a word for this experience, the experience of “seeing oneself being seen favorably.” It is called grace.
That experience of grace is at the heart of everything we do as church. There is a lot of advice out there right now to organizations about how to get their messaging right in the age of coronavirus. Haven’t we all received a barrage of email from every company or organization we have ever done business with? Church is about so much more than words, so much more than a message we can put in a video or newsletter. Church is a place you are seen and known. And whoever you are, wherever you are, you are seen in the most favorable light possible. It is an experience of grace generously given again and again. It is not abstract. It is not just an idea. It is profoundly personal and powerful. It is embodied. It is exactly the kind of experience Thomas had seeing Jesus full of grace seeing him. This life-giving, life- transforming, experience is what is so exciting about any local parish that gets the love right.
What has become unmistakably clear is that Christianity at its very core connects human beings to one another in a special way that expands hearts and minds and meets any number of deep human needs. For one, during every communion service we extend our hands toward each other, usually shaking hands while making eye contact ensuring that everyone feels seen. In this way, we embody Christ’s love person to person in exchange after exchange. The ancient name of this exercise is the “kiss of peace” because in most centuries it was a more intimate gesture still. It was and is a gesture that says to all those who are invested in division, strife, and hate that they will not find that here. We use bread and wine for much the same reason and this is to where the kiss of peace leads. The many individual grains of wheat scattered across fields and hills are brought together into the one loaf that we share. The many individual grapes scattered across vineyards make one wine as we share a common cup. Division and estrangement are named and overcome as we weekly contemplate in this visible way Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, and by making it our own, eating it as it were, we become Christ’s body in the world.
Our inability, just for now, to gather, therefore, strikes at the heart of who we are. There is no doubt about that and, I confess, I am frustrated and furious about it, even though I know Jesus has got this and is even now doing more than I know for us and in us. In the normal world, clergy would admonish the faithful now to receive God’s grace as it is embodied and visible in the eyes of all the people who love them and the sacraments received from the church. God loves us through each other and through the material world that God made. These are the ordinary forms of grace. They are sufficient and powerful enough to ward off whatever haunts you or afflicts your soul. People without number know this to be true.
We are truly grateful for the new technologies. Our parishes are using all of them and we are using them as means of grace. Countless phone calls are being made to the otherwise isolated. The point of the call is not so much to convey a message as to call somebody in such a way that they hear themselves being heard and understood, that is, the phone is being used to embody grace. Video conferences are happening daily and most anyone can see the yearning in the faces on the screen to see each other’s faces and open hands. But these technologies aren’t quite enough.
If this lack of being seen, this imposed invisibility, is weighing on you, and bad feelings are creeping in, there is something more you can do. The ordinary forms of grace are where God’s favor is mediated through people and things. If you find yourself isolated from people and things, then it is possible to have this experience directly from God. In the normal world, this is an advanced spiritual lesson. It is more difficult, but it is entirely real and you can do it. It is the experience of seeing yourself being seen by God and feeling that grace of being fully known, understood, and loved in your heart. The fullness of that experience crowds out the haunting bad things.
Getting started is the hard part. Put yourself in a position of prayer the best you know it. Remember the experience of a person who has looked at you with grace, that is, you knew him or her to know you, the real you, not the you that performs this or that, but the real you, who loved you, and you trusted this person with you. Stay there holding this gaze – eye to eye – and realize that God was loving you through that person. Then let the God part of the equation grow and grow like an expanding sun. Feel the warmth right where you are. Let it dispel the darkness, silence the critical voices, give you a sense of safety, and remind you that it is always there – that is, the all-seeing “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Repeat as necessary, reminding yourself that you are never truly alone or invisible, but are instead fully known, understood, and loved. That is what’s real.
In any case, we can benefit by remembering at this time the first followers of Jesus encountering the risen Jesus after their isolation. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In 2020 we may also hear, “Blessed are those who don’t feel seen, yet have come to believe.” May the grace of seeing yourself being seen favorably be yours, and may it drive away all that afflicts you, whether that grace comes to you through a human voice, a video screen, or directly from God.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet is interim rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and lecturer in the history of Christianity at Yale Divinity School.