This is an extract from an interview with Mary Evelyn Jegen that I made sometime in the mid-80s and published (not sure the date) in “Reconciliation International,” the journal of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation .
– Jim Forest
A news item about Pope John Paul’s visit to Southeast Asia a few years ago provided an opening in my search to integrate prayer and peace work. It was reported that, in meeting the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhists of Thailand, protocol required that they first sit together in absolute silence while “exchanging benevolent glances.” The story intrigued me. I wondered what it was like to exchange benevolent glances with a stranger. Did Pope John Paul have to practice in advance? What was the difference between just plain looking and benevolent glancing?
As I do not drive, I spend much of my life in buses. What better place, I thought, to experiment with benevolent glancing? At first I felt a bit awkward. I did not try to engage anyone’s eyes, so benevolent glancing was strictly a unilateral initiative.
A strange thing happened. I found I was praying. I don’t mean saying prayers. I was being attentive, alert and aware in a way impossible to describe. I was very much “with” a mysterious depth of reality. I was looking at others not merely with curiosity but with love. After all, love is what benevolence is all about: the word means “to wish another well.”
After a year of practice, I happened to meet a Buddhist priest. In his family he was of the fortieth consecutive generation of Buddhist priests. He said that the Buddhist way of seeing is different than the western approach. Westerners want to extract data, to “take” what they can from what they see, while a Buddhist tries simply to be present, to allow reality to present itself, to wait for it to come forward to meet the eye.
What has this got to do with peace? Very much. Benevolent glancing is an art of attentiveness. Paying attention to what is before us is a way of prayer, even a definition of prayer. We know by faith that God is everywhere. Benevolent glancing is relishing God by being attentive to what is before us.
My experience has been that persons who would be uncomfortable in considering contemplative prayer as something for themselves can nevertheless become enthusiastic about benevolent glancing. It seems to correspond to an unexpressed desire. A person who would shy away from contemplative prayer, through benevolent glancing, will in fact practice it.
Peacemaking and contemplation are so intimately related that one can hardly exist without the other. This truth can be appreciated by recognizing that violence depends on distorting the object or the victim of violence, turning the victim into an impersonal object which can then be injured or even killed. An army officer told me that killing in war is much easier now that soldiers don’t have to see the faces of the enemy. In modern war we are able to describe the death of people as “collateral damage.” Psychologically, it would be impossible to kill anyone on whom one had just been casting a loving glance. The day we teach people to look at persons behind the abstractions, to glance benevolently at them, the military-industrial complex will have a serious problem.
There is a huge difference between staring and benevolent glancing. To practice benevolent glancing is to experience deeply stirred emotions–from embarrassment and fear to compassion and love. Fear of invading the privacy of another person causes the embarrassment, but this initial feeling can be shaped into what we traditionally call modesty, a way of respect, reverence, even awe to be in the presence of the splendor of the human person who is “little less than the angels…crowned with glory and honor.”
To practice benevolent glancing is to expose oneself to pain and suffering. To take a bus ride is to come into direct contact with the embodiment of suffering: to see the deep lines in a face, the sag of the shoulders. I look carefully at one person at a time, allowing that person’s truth to come home to me. It is not always an older person whose body bears the marks of a life of endurance. It can be a high school student. In these cases I often have to deal with my own irritation and impatience at the behavior of teenagers. Before long I find myself seeing someone beautiful.
People who ride the bus are often poor, but, poor or not, one thing we have in common is that we are not in change. We are dependent on others and know our dependence. This group atmosphere tends to make the atmosphere less assertive than in other places.
I have discovered that benevolent glancing often has a ripple effect. I have the impression that I am not alone in the exercise. I can testify that if one seeks it, gently and attentively, there is often a profound sense of God’s presence in a bus.
Appreciation and admiration for others evokes a more active benevolence, a desire for the good of the other persons. While this rarely translates into a particular act at the time, it does affect the deep structure of the personality of the one practicing benevolent glancing. When the occasion arises, I find I am more apt to act constructively.
To be attentive to a suffering person is quite different than attention to a merry child. A benevolent glance toward a suffering person is an act of compassion. It is compassion that acts as a bridge from attentiveness to action, an action that can be healing and liberating.
Caring is essential to peacemaking. Peace is the goal of the universal longing for order in relationships, with the earth itself, with others, with God. To care is to be in peace while one is peacemaking. Pablo Casals once wrote: “I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”
The gospel accounts show us Jesus looking with keen attention. This appears to have been his habitual way of seeing. How else to account for his easy and spontaneous use of imagery to carry home a point! Jesus didn’t go through life with his eyes closed, uninterested in the homey events of daily experience. He saw each face. Think of the encounter with the rich young man. Mark says, “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him.”
I have never minded riding in a bus, but since that first experiment of benevolent glancing a few years ago, I look forward to bus riding as a great adventure. If the day ever comes when I have no need to ride the bus in order to get somewhere, I will ride the bus anyway simply for the joy of benevolent glancing.