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A Review of
The Sacred Gaze: Contemplation and the Healing of the Self
Paperback: Liturgical Press, 2014
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Reviewed by Scott E. Schul
Every April 12 I relive the horror of my daughter’s concussion. The head trauma happened the day before, during a seemingly harmless gym class volleyball match, but it was on the 12th when the symptoms fully manifested. That morning in school she began passing out and slurring her words. She was unable to balance herself and, most terrifyingly, lost a significant amount of her memory. Her brain tried to address the trauma it had suffered by retreating to a safe place in her past. Her voice, tone, and vocabulary took the shape of young girl rather than the high school student she was. In the hospital we reunited her with her beloved cell phone, hoping the many photos and texts would jog her memory. But instead, she looked at me in a mixture of fear and confusion and said in her now-childlike voice, “Daddy, who are all these people in my phone?” In losing her memory, my daughter had lost more than just the identity of her closest friends. She had lost her own identity as well.
The epidemic of identity loss is what Susan Pitchford endeavors to address and heal in her book, The Sacred Gaze. Pitchford, a sociology professor, Episcopalian, and Third Order Franciscan, is addressing a spiritually-based loss of identity rather than the medical loss that my daughter suffered. The spiritual loss, however, is no less terrifying, even if it is generally much more subtle. Pitchford’s inquiry into this subject represented a convergence of her sociology teaching and her Christian faith; both are concerned with matters of formation and re-formation. Indeed, as she notes in the preface, the book draws from three different sources: sociology, spirituality, and personal experience. But perhaps the deepest prod for Pitchford in writing the book was counsel she read from Claire of Assisi that “one must gaze into the mirror of the crucified Christ and there discover who we are.”
Claire’s guidance is profound wisdom, particularly in this era of self-absorbed social media postings, “selfie” photographs, and widespread medication of our souls through materialism. We prefer to gaze at the self-image we have carefully constructed rather than our bare and very human selves. Pitchford (by way of Claire) thus proposes that contemplation (i.e., gazing) at the crucified Christ removes the masks we accrete through life “so that we may see our true self reflected in his eyes, and learn the particular way he calls each of us ‘beloved.’” The restoration of our true self is a form of transfiguration – a means of seeing ourselves the way that Christ sees us – that brings healing to ourselves, healing to our relationships, and ultimately empowers us for loving service to the world.
As Pitchford observes, identity is a central concern of Jesus. Throughout the Gospels he asks others, “Who do you say that I am?” The boundaries of orthodoxy and heresy within Christianity have long been delineated by how this key question is answered. In Pitchford’s view, Jesus is just as concerned with the restoration of our identity as he is about his own identity because a person burdened by a false self becomes self-absorbed. Our healing therefore liberates us for service to the world, as illustrated by the story of Jesus healing the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39).
But how do we undertake this gaze? Pitchford devotes chapter 8 (“Gazecraft”) to this fundamental question and offers up three primary practices: the ancient discipline of Lectio Divina (divine reading of holy scripture), “Visio Divina,” a phrase she coins to describe imaginatively creating scenes involving ourselves with Christ (whether or not based in scripture); and “Audio Divina,” a term which for Pitchford involves listening to music (both sacred and secular) as a means for the Spirit to come to us and heal our identity.
Of these three techniques, I am most wary of “Visio Divina.” It seems to me that a person plagued by a false self could easily manipulate his or her imaginary encounters with Jesus into a self-affirming, self-validating continuation of the very lifestyle that created the masks in the first place. I would be extremely cautious about making use of this practice without a trusted and highly qualified spiritual director.
To my disappointment, Pitchford made sparse mention of more traditional methods of contemplation, such as the use of crosses and icons and the Roman Catholic practice of Eucharistic Adoration. To my surprise, she made no note regarding the use of one’s baptism as a root source of identity and failed to explore confession and Holy Communion as means of forgiveness and healing. Perhaps these omissions were intentional in order to make the book accessible to a wider range of faith backgrounds, but to me they were glaring omissions that rendered the book incomplete. On the whole I would have appreciated much more discussion of the techniques of “Gazecraft,” including some step-by-step examples for newcomers to contemplative prayer, even if doing so would have required Pitchford to scale back on the extensive discussion she offers concerning one’s fundamental need for a restoration of one’s true self.
The good news for my daughter is that after years of physical therapy her memory has returned and she has largely recovered from the physical and emotional after-effects of her concussion. The way was difficult but rendered her a much more mature and self-aware person who has greater clarity than ever before about her identity, her gifts, her faith, and her trajectory in life. Her journey is far from over, but her destination seems abundantly clearer. Likewise, the hopeful thesis of Susan Pitchford’s book is that by gazing at the crucified Christ, we too can regain our true identity and our path forward as disciples of Jesus and ambassadors of mercy to a world thirsting for hope and grace.
Scott E. Schul is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and serves St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, where he resides with his wife and two children. In addition to his pastorate, Scott is the Vice Chair of the Policy Council of Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of Pennsylvania.