Susan R. PITCHFORD, The Sacred Gaze: Contemplation and the Healing of the Self. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014. pp 163. $17.95. ISBN: 9780814635681. Reviewed by Eric W. HENDRY, Plano, TX 75026
In this brief but rich and deeply impressive text, Pitchford writes about the recovery of the inner radiance that is the fruit of a contemplative lifestyle. The author, a married Episcopalian as well as a professed secular Franciscan and trained Sociologist (a senior lecturer at the University of Washington), blends her own extraordinarily articulate personal insights on contemplative prayer, spirituality and healing, advocating the ultimate goal of helping Christians to become the authentic, individual persons that God has created them to be. To this end, she articulates a very readable and convincing integration of both the mystical and sociological traditions.
The author suggests that the “sacred gaze” – a mystical term she identifies in the correspondence between Claire of Assisi and Agnes of Prague – can actually become a potent source of inner healing. For Pitchford, this sacred gaze – what she defines as the experience of unself-conscious, contemplative attention on the person of Christ, particularly in his moment of Transfiguration – is seen as a primary focal point of personal transformation and even divinization for these two Franciscan saints. Blending the sociological premise that an individual comes to know and define themselves in reflecting upon how they are seen and understood by those around them – who then actually reflect that “self” back to them – the author suggests that this contemplative, sacred gaze upon Christ has a profoundly similar effect, and becomes a new “mirror” that can reflect the individual’s authentic identity i.e. the true and deepest self as imago Dei. The author suggests from her reading of these two Franciscans, that a sustained sacred gaze upon the Transfigured Christ can gradually come to replace the inauthentic or false identities that often result from what she identifies as a constant and seductive assault on the self in our contemporary, media-saturated projection of what it means to be fully human and fully alive.
Pitchford explains that, according to Claire and Agnes, this “looking glass” approach to Christ and his moment of Transfiguration, actually allows contemporary contemplatives to very slowly experience a deep healing of who they truly are – potentially free of any distorted self-images. This direct, intensive form of healing can move the individual to love God and their neighbor from an authentic core identity that is restored to a point vierge where they are able to become as unself-conscious as the “little children.” This sacred gaze, then, is actually a choice to look into the very mirror that will tell us the truth of who we are.
The author rounds out her text by then discussing various aspects of mystical theology (kenosis and purification, the kataphatic and apophatic, etc.), including the beneficial ascetical-mystical practice of lectio divina as well as introducing the reader to two contemporary prayer methods or techniques that she identifies as visio divina (the use of icons or even films) and audio divina (the use of sacred or even secular music), to help the contemporary contemplative to slow down, focus their attention and drive away distractions. One of the author’s best chapters focuses on the “active contemplative,” where she borrows several concepts from the writings of Cornel West (Race Matters and Prophetic Reflections); by correctly reframing the healing of one’s identity and self-image (imago Dei), the active contemplative can then make a right analysis of the social structures of sin around them and apply the right action to bring about effective social justice. If one of the three pieces is missing, any action is ineffective and perpetuates the cycles of social injustice. Pitchford suggests that, correctly understood, all true individual transformation that results from this “sacred gaze” should always bear fruit in true and lasting social transformation.
Pitchford’s Sacred Gaze is a very powerful, brief, and well-written text. I highly recommend it for any courses dealing with Spirituality, Mystical Theology or Spiritual Anthropology. It may also serve as a very solid supplemental text for grounding students in a spiritual orientation toward contemporary activism in Social Justice Issues.