The Practice of Beholding

Nowhere to Turn Brittany McComb Part 13 of 13

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Nowhere to Turn

The global pandemic and George Floyd’s death have led to an eruption of anxiety already simmering at the surface. Ideally, a community would look to its leaders for some measure of unity. Among our leaders, though, it’s not a stretch to echo Yeats: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”1

We may have kept clattering divisions at bay until now, but the dam has burst, and the fracturing debates infiltrate our communities and homes. On top of our basic vulnerability to the virus, with all the unknowns still surrounding its short- and long-term effects, anxiety is compounded as we try to bear with our own opposing and evolving responses to these crises.

In times like these, turning for a moment away from our anxieties and questions to behold holiness in others offers formidable stability in the mystery of God’s presence.

Beholding for God’s Sake

In the midst of our current crises it is both difficult and necessary to turn our eyes from the wars waging in the valley and look to the hills. The strong pull of the distractions of the valley make it difficult, though, to turn our eyes to the hills, to behold others in whom the mystery of God’s presence dwells.

The practice of beholding can easily be reduced to a way to solve the problems confronting us in the valleys. We might be tempted, especially in times of crisis, to instrumentalize the holiness we see in others, abstracting a virtue or ideology that advances a personal or political agenda. The goal is not, for example, to behold St. Paul’s ‘political insight’, St. Francis’s vow of poverty, or a mother’s selflessness, seeing these virtues as the solution to this or that political woe. As necessary as virtue is, to seek holiness in this way, for its own sake, is to put the cart before the horse.

So, what are we to behold in others?

To behold another, is to seek the mystery of God’s presence working within and among his people. In this simple recognition God graciously draws us back toward himself and into deeper communion with one another. By God’s grace, such beholding gently transforms our lives and the world around us.

Beholding St. Clare of Assisi

In the semi-monastic cell imparted by COVID-19, I’ve found myself beholding the life of St. Clare of Assisi.

The most noted aspect of St. Clare of Assisi’s life was her commitment to what one papal bull describes as altissima paupertas or “highest poverty”: a refusal of property (even property held in common) and a commitment to begging for only the most minimal bodily needs.

While her voluntary poverty shines a light on an obvious social ill, it’s not a straight-forward virtue, in any case. The choice to beg for a share of what is already scarce is arguably an offense to the involuntarily poor. Yet, in beholding there is something more to see. Clare finds not only strength to renounce everything, but joy in being reduced to begging. It is cause for wonder. I’ve found myself asking: where did Clare find not just the strength to do this, but joy in it? What made her renunciation of material possessions not just an exercise of virtue but a source of deep delight in God’s presence?

Clare’s own testimony was that commitment to this highest poverty sprung from this joy-filled vision. As one biographer notes, “[A] glimpse of the heavenly joys was opened up to her, the sight of which made the world itself seem of small price, the desire of which made her melt, as it were, away.”

He continues: “[G]lowing with celestial fire, Clare so looked down on the glory of earthly vanity that nothing of the world’s applause cleaved to her affections.”2

In my own beholding of Clare, I also read about her prayer for another “glimpse of the heavenly joys” at the end of her life. Sick and stuck in her cell during Christmas Eve vigil, she prayed she would be made able to celebrate the mass. Her petition was granted with a projection of the mass her sisters were celebrating at a nearby cathedral onto her own cell wall.

Kneeling alone on my floor in D.C. this Easter vigil, watching the consecration of the host at a cathedral in Boston streaming through my laptop, this vision came to mind. I laughed aloud with joy at the similarities: sickness, loneliness, the desire to be with others, and even the ‘projection’ of technology. Though I was alone, the company of the saints, dead and living, with whom I was celebrating, came tumbling to mind.

In my beholding of Clare, the mystery of God’s presence, billowed before me. In turning to it, even marginally, I was reminded, in the very midst of so much having gone wrong, that God’s presence was not only available, but generous, personal, stabilizing.

Clare did not make a vow of poverty to solve the political inequality of her time; neither did my beholding of Clare resolve the questions and stresses surrounding the pandemic, not least the difficulty of worshipping alone. However, in beholding Clare’s life I experienced a deep sense of God’s presence, as I found myself united to Christians seeking his presence. In beholding, I found stability in the mystery of God’s presence.

How to Practice Beholding

  • Beholding Saints. Pick up one of the countless biographies and journals that can offer glimpses of saints that have gone before us in this pursuit of holiness. Avoid the writings—the teachings—of saints, and stick to the lives, the biographies and autobiographies. Avoid comparison, and look for the mystery of God’s presence in the life of your chosen saint.
  • Beholding Ones We Know. As you reflect on the goodness of those around you, practice pausing when your heart is “strangely warmed” by some way they have cared for you or for another.3 Consider more than the abstracted virtue; consider the manner or tone with which the act of love was carried out. In one more recent personal reflection, I felt compelled to ask my friend about a certain habit she has that has blessed me deeply in our friendship; as I described above in my reflections on St. Clare, the mystery of God’s presence with us, and, in this case, in a close friendship, again, billowed before us both.
  • Beholding Others. “Love is everywhere (Beware),” is one of the tracks on Wilco’s latest album. Similarly, Saint Ignatius challenges us to find God in all things. We do this when we behold the holiness in others. For example, I noticed my grocer last week was taking great care in packing my items. I mentioned it to him, and he responded that he finds it so helpful to have his produce organized this way, and his canned items, that, etc. It wasn’t the care, generally, but the way he cared that was striking. There was something about his energy, a sort of effortless effort, that provided an opportunity to wonder where this sort of care comes from, and feel a sense of gratitude that this source of goodness exists and is generous.
Footnotes
  1. William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming, accessed June 23, 2020.
  2. Thomas Celano, The Life of Saint Clare (Boston: The Dolphin press, 1910), 11.
  3. John Wesley, “Journal of John Wesley,” https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html, accessed June 24, 2020.
Brittany McComb is a PhD student in theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and a fellow of the Cultura Initiative.
Listen to all parts in this 12 Spiritual Practices for the Pandemic series