Looking Out Through New Eyes
(Philemon 9-10, 12-17)
Some weeks ago, Mother Teresa was raised to the status of a canonized Saint. And though there are many aspects of her life and spirituality to admire and try to imitate, I pick up on one that comes through in this letter Paul sent to Philemon. And that is, the grace-filled hard work it takes to change around the way you look at a person because you come to see him or her “in the Lord.” Or put another way, you change your estimation for the better because you’ve come to view that individual inside a new frame.
So with Paul in this letter to an old friend. It seems that Onesimus, one of this man’s servants (really one of his slaves), ran away. Not only that, this runaway indentured himself to Paul to become a kind of valet-assistant to him in Paul’s old age when in prison. Now Paul is asking that friend, Philelmon, for a favor. “Please take Onesimus back; don’t haul him into court; write off your financial loss. And, if you can do this, it will be very enriching for your life of faith.”
But Paul is asking for more. He’s requesting that his friend dig deep down inside himself and transpose the very way he looks at Onesimus.
“Up until now,” says Paul, “you’ve seen him as your property, a commodity, an owned slave. What I’m asking you to do is to turn all that around. In other words, change the lens through which you now look at him and see him through a new one that can see through to his humanity. More than that, look on him as your brother. And even one step more, regard him as ‘in the Lord.’ See and revere God’s presence in him.” Or as Vincent de Paul would put it centuries later, see in his face the face of Christ.
Talk about a big favor, this change of mind and heart and of perspective and even instinct. “Last time you saw him you treated him as property. Next time you see him coming up the road, treat him as an equal, honor him as your brother in the Lord.” We’re talking large-order transformation here. But Paul asks it of his friend nonetheless.
Mother Teresa taught for 20 years in an academy for relatively well-off girls in Calcutta and for the most part lived “inside the gates.” But there were those others outside the gates, the desperately poor and even dying ones lying in the gutter whom hardly anyone even looked at, let alone stop to talk to and treat as persons. They were the outcasts viewed as untouchable, living below the line of the fully human.
But inside this middle aged nun, a transformation was going on. When she looked out past those gates, she began to see individuals much like herself, people who had inherent dignity, children of the same God. You could say the structure of her vision underwent a transformation (even a reversal) such that she no longer viewed them as frightening and even repulsive bodies but as people, humans with whom she had much more in common than not, fellow beloveds of God.
Again, we’re talking fundamental (and most likely painful) transformation. Under the Spirit’s power and with her own cooperation, her vision of who was valuable and worthy of respect shifted and even overturned. Echoing Paul’s entreaty, this is “what she was asked.” And this is what she managed to do.
Paul’s over-the-top request to Philemon, and Mother Teresa’s transformation of outlook sets a high bar for us Christians. Who are the ones in our world whom we can tend to see as a bit less than worthy, having less dignity, not quite in that circle of people whom we regard as people like us? Who are the men and woman the culture tends to write off as collateral damage, as expendable, as not really worth as much as the ones under its own tent? Who are the ones at whom the gospel is challenging us to take that second look? Where in our world is the Spirit calling us to put on those new lenses that will let us shift our sight, so to speak, let us see past strange and rough surfaces to underlying worth and God given dignity. Or in Vincentian parlance, to see through to the face of Christ.
There are lots of Onesimuses out there, lots of people who routinely are seen as not quite as valuable, not quite as deserving of rights and fair treatment and the respect due a human. People like the estimated 65 million refugees now wandering through the world.
There’s an article in a recent issue of America Magazine about what it calls the remarkable leadership of Angela Merkel of Germany. Against fierce criticism, persevering through setbacks of violence from radicals among the newcomers, and taking on the great social upheaval of letting in a million foreigners, she continues to admit them at a rate that far outdistances any other country. For one, she feels Germany’s special obligation to make reparation for its atrocities in WW II. But more widely, she seems to be one of those persons who has managed to put on those other pair of lenses that look out at her world and see not just statistics, not just the alien, not the less worthy, but fellow humans, children of the same God looking for their rightful dignity.
A Saint? No one seems to be saying quite that (even though she did make Time Magazine’s Person of the Year!). But someone who sees through a transformed set of eyes? It seems so. She has the kind of turned-around vision that Paul was asking of Philemon and that Mother Teresa underwent — to see others as “sisters and brothers in the Lord.”
A final story about Mother Teresa. The late Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J recounted a time when he was part of a group of people working with her in India and they returned from a long day’s travel across the country. As he and the others were dragging off to bed, he spied her going out again — to a hospice for the dying across the street. He followed. And when he got in the building, he saw her moving slowly toward a painfully thin old man in a corner bed. What he couldn’t get over was the reverence she showed as she walked up to him. In Kavanaugh’s words. “It was like watching someone going up to receive Communion.” She was seeing not a decrepit body, but the body of Christ.
What a striking instance of those “transformed eyes” Paul is asking from his friend Philemon — so he could come to see the real worth of that slave Onesimus in God’s eyes, and that is, see him as “a brother in the Lord.” Isn’t our Vincentian worldview asking just this “big favor” from us?