Susan R. Pitchford tssf, The Sacred Gaze: Contemplation and the healing of the self, Liturgical Press 2014, (Paperback 168 pages)
Available from $16 approx. online.
Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf
Gaze: to look with love into the face of another. Gazing requires attention over time; and gazing brings the one who gazes closer to the other whose face is beheld.
Susan Pitchford, as a member of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, is the right person to introduce readers to gazing as “Contemplation and the Healing of the Self”, as she describes gazing in the sub-title of this accessible and helpful book. Pitchford uses Saint Clare of Assisi as her springboard for the idea of gazing as prayer, in particular, Saint Clare’s letter to Saint Agnes of Prague, where St Clare invites Agnes to gaze on Christ as a mirror.
Susan Pitchford first places this idea in her academic field of sociology to understand how a loving gaze can lead to the healing of self by correcting the images we have of ourselves.
We begin the journey by acknowledging that we are gazed at: God looks with love on our face. What God sees there, because God is love, is the self that is made whole, not the wounded and sinful self of which we are so conscious. When we discover this true self, we are set free to pray in true freedom. We then can gaze on the face of God.
Pitchford is conscious that this way of talking about prayer can easily be empty words. A useful chapter describes how different personalities can use their imaginations to engage in gazing: for some, this will be visual or verbal, for others auditory or kinaesthetic. All are ways to behold the face of God, to bring our attention to focus on God present with us. How to gaze with words or scenes from scripture or with clay or music attractively detailed. These practical suggestions are a strength of The Sacred Gaze.
Like Sister Ilia Delio in her books on Franciscan prayer, Susan Pitchford traces a threefold movement of prayer: from attention to gazing to transformative action. As Pitchford writes, ‘If our gazing at Christ doesn’t cause us to turn a compassionate gaze at the world, and motivate us to compassionate action, then we need to check on whether it’s really Christ we’ve been gazing at. If we know nothing else about Jesus, we can be certain at least of this; staying aloof from the needs of the world is not his style.’ (page 138)
The Sacred Gaze begins in Franciscan prayer and sociological insight, but roams widely and useful across much of the literature of contemplative prayer. I enjoyed the insistence with which Pitchford connects this material with ordinary life. It is encouraging that ordinary people like me and you can set out on the journey of the sacred gaze, being held in love, discovering the true self, and acting in freedom with compassion for the world.
This review by Colin tssf, Provincial Minister of the Third Order for Australia, was published in the Stigmata Issue of the Australian Province’s Newsletter 2012 (www.tssf.org.au)
Very appropriately named, this book contains talks and workshops given by Ted when he was the Provincial Minister of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis. It provides those who read it with challenges that faced Brother Francis over 800 years ago.
Ted has selected eight talks to stimulate, guide and challenge us as readers to not only fully appreciate St Francis’s ultimate focus on God and all creation, but also to lead us with Francis in developing our own faith journey in Franciscan spirituality and to stand firmly in faith and to make a difference in the time God has given us. As Francis gazed upon the cross of St Damiano he was confronted with God’s call. In ‘Gazing prayer’, the first of Ted’s addresses, he introduces us to the 3- fold movement in prayer. He points out that ‘gazing, transforming, and acting’ lead us to follow God’s call as Franciscans with full understanding of who we are and what God wants of us.
The Upside-Down World of St Francis continues with addresses relating to Discipleship, the joy of poetry and literature in discovering Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the gift of this ministry. Hopkins on escape from his journals wrote, ‘I know the beauty of our Lord by it as we drove home the stars came out thick: I lent back to look at them and my heart opening more than usual praised our Lord to and in whom all that is beauty comes home, this busy working of nature wholly independent of the earth and seeming to go on in a strain of time not reckoned by our reckoning of days and years…… was like a new witness to God and filled me with delightful fear.’
The book continues and focuses upon Spiritual Poverty again with the challenge given us through Francis. Ted writes: ‘For our spiritual survival, paradoxically, we should choose poverty…..In our relationships with others, we should learn to hold nothing back. In our relationship with God, we should be learning how to give ourselves in our entirety to God.’
The Salvation of Creation encourages us as Franciscans, and as Christians to be responsible within community, a community that embraces all of creation, not domination of it. Money and the Third Order reminds us of our commitment as members of our Order of the wider purpose we each have in our journey in serving others, in making a difference. The First Third Order and Penance, leads us to Francis’s joy and love he had in the presence of God. His journey of penance in love reminds us of God’s unconditional love for us. This love he shows us each day in the world in which we live, work and play. We are called to reflect and discover God in all things, rejoicing as Francis did. Challenging greed and violence, raises the questions: how do you refuse to live in the domination system? What does non-passiveness mean to you? What would nonviolence look like in your world? In conclusion Ted calls us to transformation. So the challenge of Jesus and the challenge of Francis is to rebuild our community a community based upon love and not power!
The Green Passover of Francis of Assisi: translated by Ted, draws together this collection in our place within the whole of creation focusing upon the Canticle of the Creatures. “For Francis and each of us, ‘there can be no rediscovered creation without the inner becoming of a person. But equally there can be no new person without a rediscovered creation’.
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