Towards a definition
The word benevolent comes from the Latin, bene + velle, meaning to wish well. Benevolent gazing is a silent prayer done with the eyes. It means to look with love wherever you look – at morning rain washing your windows, at the hooded eyes of the terrorist and his captives on the news, at the sun rising like ribbons over your head and theirs. It means looking with love at the gentleman who holds the door open for you at the post office, at people in cars who wave you on at intersections, at people who do not wave, but charge ahead of you.
Most of all benevolent gazing means looking with love into human faces, those you meet but once, or those whose every frown and smile you know well. It is looking with the Good Eye, God’s Eye, as opposed to the evil eye, the molochia.
Many saints have said that prayer is simply receiving God’s benevolent gaze and gazing back, so that there is one single gaze. The mystic, Julian of Norwich, calls God the sweet Eye of love that never stops gazing on us.
Retreat day in the church hall
Sister Luke explains the sweet Eye of love to 30 faces smiling at her. In such a cloud of love, they all proceed to look with love at the people in their lives – those they left to come to the retreat, friends and relatives they have not seen in years, their mothers and fathers, siblings, favorite aunts and uncles, teachers and friends from every stage of their lives. They even manage a loving look at those who have hurt them or whom they have hurt. On small pads they note the names. They bless all the people in their lives, even as they gaze benevolently at the persons seated next to them and across the table.
Two days after the retreat Sister Luke is reading on her front porch when she hears loud, violent shouting coming from two houses up. A veritable barrage of every foul word in the book spews out of the mouth of a young man with a baseball cap jammed on backwards. He aims the barrage at the woman trying to hold him back, then at the tall woman next door who has inched over to Sister Luke’s front lawn. She is shaking, a cell phone to her ear. Sister Luke leaves the porch, goes over to the young man and tells him to calm down, that this is a peaceful neighborhood. He is new there, but he is a seasoned abuser. The foul barrage comes at Sister Luke like she has never known before. The woman on the cell phone thanks her. The abuser runs to a newly arrived getaway car just as a police car pulls up. The woman tells her story. Sister Luke goes back to her porch. But not to her reading. There is no denying it – this is a benevolent gazing test.
At the doctor’s office
She approaches the counter and the medical secretary framed in a square of light. There are forms to fill out. She draws herself up and slides one foot against the other, so that from behind she appears to be a sturdy black pillar. Slacks carefully pressed. Coat carefully brushed. Dutifully she fills out the forms. Yes, she has been in a car accident. Yes, the car was thrown into a field, hit a bush and then a tree. Yes, two months later she is still bruised. Yes, she feels lumps in her right breast. Yes, she is terrified. But there is no space to indicate this. Only the drawing herself up, the squaring of shoulders, the slight slide of one foot towards its companion. These tell of the trembling inside.
Sitting in the waiting room, her companion of 34 years sees it all. And has never loved her more.
Our Lady of Victory Convent
Why can’t the three of them live out the rest of their old age and die in the convent they love?
Because it isn’t safe. The rectory has been robbed, Father Jim’s chalice stolen, with his mother’s wedding ring embedded in the base.
Because as they well know four security guards rotate duty at Our Lady of Victory School across the street.
Because a convent with three elderly nuns is a sitting duck.
And so the three of them, Sisters Adele, Bridget and Agnes, pack what little they have and open the convent door to three of the security guards. They are dressed in their formal blues, take the sisters’ small possessions and store them in the three tank-like vehicles parked at the curb. “SECURITY” is splashed across the sides.
Then each man in blue offers his arm to each nun in black and together they process down the sidewalk. Adele, the English teacher, looks at her escort and announces, “Farewell to arms.” He has no idea what she means, but smiles and pats her small hand. Sister Agnes stands gazing benevolently at their home, then the school, then walks doggedly to the waiting vehicles. Not Sister Bridget. She looks lovingly at the home she left in County Mayo a long time ago. Just the thought and she skips a little with her escort.
And so it is that on a bright spring day, three sisters and three security guards in dress blues make their slow way in caravan from one state to another.
No bells peal.
Not a note for valor in the field.
At the Globe Theatre
Lady Capulet is insistent. Count Paris is handsome, rich, kinsman of a prince. What more could her daughter Juliet want. What her daughter could want is Romeo. But she is a good daughter and promises her mother, “I’ll look to like if looking liking move.” It is a classic example of benevolent gazing. The only catch is that Juliet has already looked with love at Romeo.
And we all know how that benevolent gazing ends.
In the garden
He is a peaceful man, one who gazes with a sweet eye, which is why he has plowed and dug and staked 30 tomato plants to share with the rundown neighborhood. All well and good, until the squirrels take him at his word and help themselves. He locks eyes with each squirrel poised on hind legs with a green tomato in its mouth. The gardener thinks BB gun. Wire mesh. Prowling cat.
At St. Julian’s Church
Some call her Dame Julianna of Norwich. Others, Julian of Norwich. She is an anchoress attached to the church of St. Julian of Norwich, England, which accounts for her name. She is the recipient of many Divine revelations. Hers is the sweet eye of love gazing on the Divine, who first gazes at her.
Julian says to the woman trembling at the doctor’s office and the three leaving their home for the unknown – all shall be well. To Sister Luke, Juliet, the abused and the abuser – all shall be well. To retreatants and stalwart escorts, to gardeners, squirrels and the Earth itself – all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
How can she be so sure? Because the sweet Eye of love never stops gazing on us.
[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. “We were called Sister” (U.S. Catholic) was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the CPA.]