A teacher in Florida gathered several other teachers and 10 to 12 of their middle school students each Saturday morning for a bus ride to a nearby nursing facility. The group’s main ministry on those mornings was simply to transport those residents who wished to attend Mass to a large meeting room and then, after the celebration of Eucharist, to return them to their rooms.
The students encountered all sorts of people at that facility: the grateful, the cantankerous, the joy-filled, the angry, the sad, the silent, the talkative. The men and women truly represented a cross-section of humanity.
As the bus made its way to the nursing home, the students talked about anything that came to mind: their favorite singing groups, the last movie they saw, who liked whom in their class, their next big test and how well they thought they might do. The topics may have changed from week to week, but the volume of their conversations managed to stay at a heightened peak.
When the bus pulled into the parking lot of the nursing home, however, the conversation took an abrupt turn. No longer did the dialogue center on personal interests, but rather, each student began to vie for the privilege of attending to one of the women who lived in the nursing home, Alma.
Alma was in her late 40s and had been relegated to this nursing home for some 25 years. Most of her days were spent in bed or, if transportation from place to place were necessary, on a gurney. Alma couldn’t speak, and the only movement she could make was with her deep-set eyes. Her gaze assured her visitors beyond any doubt that they were seen and accepted.
Many people who crossed Alma’s path no doubt felt great pity for her and her situation. Many may have thought that she had little to offer anyone, while others may have reflected on how difficult it must have been to live day to day with what they felt was the absence of vital contact with others.
Those who passed this kind of judgment on Alma’s situation had only to watch the students claim Alma as their friend on any given Saturday to have opinions changed and judgments upended.
Without a word, without a movement, with only a simple loving gaze, Alma was able to stir something deep within each person near her. Each felt an assurance that he or she mattered and that without question, without reference to physical appearance, personal achievement or past failures, each was loved simply because each was alive. It was amazing to watch and even more amazing to be the one who received Alma’s gaze.
The psalms often call us to seek God’s face, to let God’s face shine upon us that we might be saved. There may be no better understanding of these words than to see them translated into the person of Alma. She was radiant with God’s love and that love transformed her countenance into that of God’s own face.
Alma likely saved many in the group of teachers and students from sadness, hopelessness, fear and self-doubt. She didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t have to muster a word. She was simply Alma. She had no pretense. She had no need to impress. She simply delighted in being with those who were near. What a gift Alma was to those who were so blessed to be in her presence, indeed, to be in God’s presence that shone so radiantly from within her.
Our world is so caught up in physical appearances, unrestrained prestige and monetary prowess that it is easy to forget why we were created. Alma served as a reminder that each of us is called to radiate God’s face. Alma had mastered this. God’s face shone so brightly through her that no words were necessary; all that the school group deemed so important fell to the wayside as each vied to simply be near her.
Although Christ spoke powerful words that often moved others, although he had the power to heal, although he commanded authority in his countenance, it must have been his gaze that stirred the hearts of those he encountered. When Christ looked at a person, he looked at that person. Christ’s loving gaze drew the person to himself and, at the same time, drew that person more deeply to his or her own true self.
As we continue our Lenten journey, let us pray to recognize God’s loving gaze and, in turn, let us look lovingly on all those we encounter. How powerful it is to be looked upon so tenderly. How potent it is to share God’s gaze with another. How wonderful it is to be loved beyond measure. A blessed Lent!