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The Power of the Glance

The Cappadocia region of Turkey looks like the landscape of the Flintstones. Something ethereal, something lunar, and somewhat otherworldly. There’s everything from natural hikes to hot air balloons to one of the oldest Christian monastic communities in the world.

UNESCO has designated the collection of monastic churches in Göreme as a World Heritage Centre. The churches date back around a thousand years, and are a reminder of the Desert Father tradition that spread over the Middle East.

Many of the churches are adorned with beautiful traditions of icons. Icons, not idols. We do not so much see the icon as see through the icon into the sacredness beyond. The icon is where Darsan takes place. As Diana Eck said in her wonderful book (also titled Darsan), the icon is where we see through, and our gaze meets back God’s gaze.

In time, the area has been conquered by waves of conquerors from the ancient Persians and Crusaders to Arabs. Those who did not share the icon tendencies scratched out the eyes of the icons.

This defacement was something to block out the power of the icon, to take the batteries out so to speak. But implicit in that act was a realization that these images had a power, there was a connection to the realm beyond, and that way had to be stopped in favor of other ways.

I am not concerned with icons and aniconic tendencies here, but simply with glances, loving glances.

The mystics of Islam teach us that, when we look at someone, we do not so much “see” them as project a glance. Where glances meet, souls touch.

Glances are powerful, intimate. Depending on the heart connection — and lack thereof — they can be profoundly touching, saying what no word can utter. Or they can be deeply intrusive, an uncomfortable, unwelcome, and unwanted advance.

So often I notice this: when our eyes meet, we quickly avert the gaze. It is uncomfortable when a glance lingers too long. How accustomed we are to the lingering gaze being a sign of unwanted sexual advance, and rightly so. I also know that it need not be like this. There are relationships, places in the world, where people gaze deeply into each others’ eyes. I yearn to be in these communities where love spills over through glances.

The mystics of Islam teach that there are three relationships in life; when we look at each other, neither soul turns away. There is eye-to-eye contact, presence, focus, and pure delight.

The first is when we come into this world. Babies gaze into their parents’ eyes (especially their mothers). I still remember holding my beautiful daughter immediately after her birth. When she opened her lovely eyes, gazing deep into my heart, not blinking and not turning away, there was a love unlike any I had felt before.

The second is between lovers and beloveds. Sometimes, most often we see this in new love, and how sweet it is when love is so refreshed that it turns into old, familiar love: what is lovelier than old lovers gazing into each others’ eyes? Every wrinkle cherished, my darling, for it is a testimony to the journey we have shared. For a moment or two, the world melts away. There is neither here nor there, not Earth nor Heaven, only love, always love, all love.

The last is a combination of the above, when a person on the path finds their teacher, their co-traveler. This relationship between people on the path of God is a friendship, a love, a maternal/paternal relationship all rolled into one.

Alas, everything that is beautiful is likely to be tainted, and so each of the above three relationships are today filled with pain here and there, abused to betray the promise at their heart.

A young couple smiles at each other in Kiev, Ukraine. Image by Flore de Préneuf © World Bank/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)..

This is part of the Islamic teaching in this part of the world: a reflection on what it means to purify each of our faculties. What would it mean to look upon one another, look with one another, look into one another the way God would look upon us. What would it mean to listen to each other so that we are attentive, caring, nurturing, eager to learn how to provide care, not to get the next (and last) word in. What would it mean to touch someone in a way that is not aggressive and unwanted, with a touch that clings not and possesses not. What would it mean for divine faculties to come and take over, replacing all that is egoistic with all that is nurturing.

I ponder this every time I read the Qur’an’s description of Muhammad’s ascension to Heaven (Mi’raj) where at the very zenith of meeting God face-to-face, we are told that Muhammad and God engaged in an exchange of glances, and that he did not “avert his gaze” from Divine beauty (Qur’an 53:18). When we look at each other through this glance, it is an echo of seeing God face to face.

Don’t turn away, my friend. There is divinity and encounter, all here.

I wonder about what it would be like to build, one glance at a time, a beloved community. What would it be like to have glances that we exchange, expressing that deepest jewel in each others’ souls. I see the divinity in you. You are sacred, you are sacred to me. I will not cling, nor possess, but I will honor you and if you would have me, friend, walk with you on this path of love back to God.

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