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How do I look?

On a recent trip to London, I was struck by the number of people who were glued to their phones or tablets, barely aware of what was going on around them; it's as if people have forgotten how to look. Today's life has an undercurrent of busyness and hurry as we rush from one thing to another, making snap decisions and expecting instant results; there can appear to be little time for reflection, dwelling, and wondering.

In a compelling article by Fr Dunlevy, there is the suggestion that modern society has misplaced its contemplative gaze and with it the ability to deeply look, seeing the Lord present. Clearly, this is damaging our relationship and knowledge of Christ. Dunlevy asserts, “It is only when our prayer and study become truly attentive to the reality set before us that we open ourselves to receive Jesus in such a way that we know Him more intimately and grow in love with Him.” (Dominicana, August 2016)

I've been thinking recently about the concept of contemplation and how we as Christians need to rediscover or recover it. By practising the discipline of contemplation, I am particularly interested in understanding the ability to look deeply and slowly with the eyes of Christ, by which we might perceive what is really going on around us. The question that came to mind is this; ‘How do we move in our looking from a glance, a glare to a gaze?’ Allow me to unpack what I mean by this.


When I'm in a hurry (which happens more often than I'd like to admit), I glance at things; that is, I take a quick look to see if there's anything of interest. The first impression is rarely compassionate; it is too preoccupied with weighing up and assessing: ‘What might I get out of this?’, ‘How will this affect me?’, ‘How does my self-image require that I react or respond to this?’ or ‘How might I reclaim control of this situation?’ My thoughts tend to be quick thoughts, of which I am largely at the centre. I am very much aware of the dangers of glancing.

If I allow my eyes to linger a little longer than a glance, there is a temptation to glare; that is, to begin to see the flaws, the wrongs, what is lacking and what needs to be addressed... my eyes become critical. I see the problems rather than the opportunities, and thereby see the need to separate myself from the situation.

In glaring I have perfected my version of the ‘Paddington Bear hard stare’, through which I am able to communicate disapproval, disappointment, and disgust without needing to use words. I cannot help but wonder if this is something we too often do as evangelical Christians, not the Paddington Bear stare, but rather seeing the problems, all that needs to be addressed, the behaviours that need correcting rather than the opportunities, the beauty, the possibilities, and the compassion. The problem largely occurs when we are in a hurry, or on a mission, where such things become a distraction. In the story of the Good Samaritan, by glancing or glaring, we become the ones who effectively walk by on the other side of the road. We have possibly more in common with the Priest, and the Levite than we might be comfortable considering. We glance and we glare, and then we pass by.

Continuing with this analogy, it is the Samaritan who is the one who looks, sees with compassion, and then acts. Could it be that he felt compelled to stop and help because he gazed and in so doing saw the man through a different lens—a lens that saw the man as his neighbour, as a one-of-a-kind and unrepeatable wonder whom he welcomed as a gift into his busy and hectic life?

The dictionary defines gazing as ‘to fix the eyes in a steady intent; look often with eagerness or studious attention’. That is a helpful definition. Gazing, in my opinion, enhances our natural capacity to receive God's word to us, and when we internalise that word, we become able to look upon creation with loving eyes.

Prayer is often interpretated as a kind of problem solving between humans and God; however, the early desert mothers and fathers saw prayer as a transformation of the consciousness of the one doing the praying. The fact that we typically shut our eyes while praying, as if to obstruct outside influences, is paradoxical. Is it possible that God wants us to pay attention to those very diversions? What might it look like if we are to pause, move beyond glancing and glaring, and instead gaze?

I believe that gazing leads us to contemplation; it is more than just conveying images; it is an invitation to God to speak to our souls in ways that inform, inspire, and eventually lead us to action. Gazing is an invitation to have our hearts transformed and our minds liberated; it is a chance to look for and reflect light. Perhaps each of us should ask ourselves, "How do I look?" 

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. Psalms 27:4 (TNIV)


Simon Mattholie

CEO, Rural Ministries

First published in MOSAIC Issue 12, January - April - December 2024


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