In the measure you desire Him, you will find Him. He so esteems our turning to look at Him. —St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, 26.3
We may assume that we turn to God first in prayer, but Teresa [of Avila] emphasizes that it is God who first gazed at us, who first loved us unconditionally and brought us into being. God continues to look at us lovingly, searching for room in our hearts throughout the day. Knowing this, how can we not turn our attention to God? “I’m not asking you to do anything more than look at Him. For who can keep you from turning the eyes of your soul toward this Lord, even if you do so just for a moment if you can’t do more? . . . Your Spouse never takes His eyes off you” (The Way of Perfection, 26.3). For Teresa, this gaze in which we keep our eyes on Christ, our constant companion, is our prayer.
It takes a lifetime, however, to accept this gaze of love and learn how to respond to it. How receptive are we to the loving gaze of someone close to us? How much more difficult to bear the look of unconditional love? Can we imagine that God sees something extraordinarily beautiful in us?
When the rich young man approached Jesus and offered to sacrifice everything for eternal life, Jesus responded with a tender gaze and “was filled with love for him” (Mark 10:21). This gaze invited the young man to a loving union with God, but it also called for transformation. Christ did not stand separate from the young man as judge or observer but called him from within himself, as One who knew him intimately and saw the total truth of who he was—all his strengths and weaknesses, his charades and giftedness. When the young man saw himself mirrored in this divine loving gaze, it startled him because suddenly he realized his true identity and the sacrifice necessary to uncover it. God’s gaze radiates from the center of our being and invites a response. Will we pay attention or not? The starting point for our journey of inner transformation is the gift of this gaze and our willingness to respond to it. Teresa asks simply: why not return this loving gaze and look upon the One who always looks upon us?
Returning this gaze does not mean seeing Christ as an object separate from us but rather recognizing that we are already in Christ and that the presence of Christ is in some way the very ground of our awareness. So to gaze at Christ is a gentle glance recognizing that Christ is alive within me. However, like the young man we hesitate and draw back in fear, not wanting to see the truth and wary of how unconditional love will change us. For those who encounter this gaze and remain vulnerable to it, everything changes: social conditioning and unhealthy attachments are released in favor of an inward adventure in pursuit of love.
At the end of her autobiography, Teresa describes her own encounter with God’s gaze of love: “Once while I was reciting . . . the hours of the Divine Office, my soul suddenly became recollected; and it seemed to me to be like a brightly polished mirror, without any part on the back or sides or top or bottom that wasn’t totally clear. In its center Christ, our Lord, was shown to me. . . . It seemed to me I saw Him clearly in every part of my soul, as though in a mirror” (The Book of Her Life, 40.5).
This experience became a reminder to her of how easily darkness of sin can hide the soul from love, and it assured her that those who know this gaze of love will remember that God is not outside somewhere, but is instead waiting for them within their very selves.
Often we become aware of this gaze in surprising ways, and the experience leaves us in wonder and awe. It may occur, for example, through an encounter with a child or in the presence of the Eucharist. Dr. Ewert Cousins, a respected scholar and a humble and gracious man whom I came to know through a summer-long seminar on mysticism, reveals this turning point in his life. He writes:
That Sunday I was kneeling in chapel for the Benediction service and something happened. I was teaching Catechism to little kids on the Indian reservation and a little girl came up and hugged me. It was the first feeling of affection I felt in myself in months. Then that afternoon in chapel I was kneeling and looking at the monstrance exposed holding the Eucharistic bread. And I had a tremendous, overwhelming experience that I could love God. I just never had anything like that in my life. And it came up in my body, pouring out into consciousness . . . . My whole life is contained in this one experience from here on out. (quoted in Aging as a Spiritual Journey, Eugene C. Bianchi)
This experience demonstrates how God’s gaze can be transformative for those who are open to it. It can change us forever, filling us with grace, calming our anxieties, and bringing hope to those dark parts of our lives by banishing fear, hatred, jealousy, and distrust.
If we ever doubt our path—and it can be profoundly challenging at times—we turn to face God and see the look in his eyes. We may not be very good lovers now, but as Teresa assures us, God will continue to transform us more and more. We have no need to protect ourselves and nothing to fear. So we must release our anxiety, for our path is forever being renewed and made whole through the mutual gaze of love between ourselves and God: “Of you my heart has said, ‘Seek his face!’” (Psalm 27:8).
This article is an excerpt from The Inward Path to God: A Prayer Journey with St. Teresa of Avila by Wayne Simsic (The Word Among Us Press, 2015). Available at wau.org/books