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The Light By Which We See: The Problem of Promise and Identity

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Editors’ Note: This post is an excerpt from the beginning of the first chapter of DeLorenzo’s new book Witness: Learning to Tell the Story of Grace That Illumine Our Lives, published by and reprinted with the permission of Ave Maria Press, and currently available on their website.

If someone were to call you by name and ask, “Who are you?” how would you respond? It is an unsettling question because having to say one thing about the whole of your existence is daunting. Each of us knows a lot about ourselves while, at the same time, most of us also know that there is a lot about ourselves that we do not understand. To define yourself in one way comes at the expense of defining yourself in other ways, and no one likes to be limited. Even more disturbing is the occasional realization that “I may not really know myself at all.” This problem of identity exists for each of us, no less for those who claim to be disciples. And it was precisely this question that an interviewer asked Jorge Mario Bergoglio shortly after he took the name Francis. After a period of thinking and searching for the right words and the right image, the new pope responded in the manner of a disciple: “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord.”[1]

The disciple sees himself as one who is first of all seen; the disciple knows himself first of all as one who is known. This is a fascinating little paradox: that the way a disciple identifies himself is, first and foremost, to recognize that he is identified by another—namely, the Lord. Not unlike the rest of us, Pope Francis was aware of the various traits he possessed and the different things he knew about himself—such as that he is “a bit astute” and “really, really undisciplined”—but he also knew that not one of these things or even the whole collection of them could account for who he is. All these other things abide within the one truly necessary thing: the Lord looks upon him in love. He knows himself as one seen in this way, and the whole story of who he is exists within the project of coming to believe, ever more fully, that this is true. A disciple sees in response to being seen and knows in response to being known.

In the pope’s imagination, Caravaggio’s painting of The Calling of Saint Matthew expresses the paradox of the disciple’s identity. The moment the artist portrays is one in which all of the agency belongs to Jesus. On his initiative alone, Jesus looks upon Levi, who will become Matthew, in the midst of his typical crowd and engaged in his typical tax-collecting activities. Levi is stunned, awestruck even, as he raises his own finger to himself as if to confirm that Jesus is in fact pointing towards him. The rest of the scene is held in suspended animation—for this decisive moment, there is no movement. Two of Levi’s companions remain engaged in their previous endeavors, while the other two look up to observe this interruption. Connecting the two sides of the canvas is the beam of light running along Jesus’ outstretched hand and following his gaze onto Levi. In the dawn of this new light, Levi is called forth into Matthew and his identity is established: Matthew is the one whom the Lord looks upon. The story of Matthew begins here, and from this moment all the stories he had previously lived are recast in light of the Lord looking upon him. In the light of the Lord’s mercy Matthew begins to see himself and all things new. Contemplating this image helped Francis to see himself accordingly.

Francis could have just as easily invoked the subject of another one of Caravaggio’s paintings: St. Thomas the Apostle. In this painting, Caravaggio ponders the scene in the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel, where the Lord shows his wounds to Thomas, who is coming to believe in the Resurrection as he sees. The evangelist brings the episode to a close with Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (Jn 20:29, NAB). Because of the Lord’s words, we might suppose there is some easier route to belief that comes by way of seeing directly but that most of us, like Pope Francis and unlike St. Thomas and St. Matthew, are destined to struggle along the more difficult path of coming to believe without seeing. It seems that the goal is to believe whether or not one sees, whether by easier or harder means. But if we are too quick in assuming we know why St. Thomas passed over from seeing to believing when the risen Christ came to him bodily, then we miss what and how Thomas actually saw. Thomas doesn’t just see wounds, a body, and a person—he sees “my Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28). In that shift from seeing a stranger to seeing who this really is standing before him, Thomas sees himself as the one to whom the Risen One has offered peace. He had been looking for verification to placate his mind, but he ends up seeing himself as known, loved, and desired. His way of seeing yielded to God’s way of seeing in Christ. In that sense, Thomas didn’t stop seeing but rather started seeing by the light of God. In short, he believed.[2]

In his book on the theology of transformation, Bishop Robert Barron declares from the outset that “Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing.”[3] This is inarguably true, but only in the sense that the Christian way of seeing is born of and responds to God’s way of seeing us. Of course, it would be delightful if one could, all of a sudden, pass over into seeing oneself according to the mercy of the Lord. The fact is, however, that a mark of our fallen nature is our inability or unwillingness to see ourselves in this way. In response to this blindness, the Lord lends us his sight: when the Lord looks upon us in mercy, the redemption from our blindness begins, and as we learn to see in this light, we become who we are called to be. Initiating, educating, and guiding others into this belief and response is the work of Christian formation. The fruits of the long work of formation become evident when, in response to the question, ‘Who are you?’ one is able to respond, “I am one who is looked upon by the Lord.” This is the starting point for the story of a Christian life.

Enabling others to shape their life as a Christian story is an essential aim of Christian formation. I am interested in exploring why this matters and how we can do it better. More specifically, I want to highlight a singular and demanding practice that promotes integrated faith formation in a way that is at once timeless and specially suited to the present day: crafting and sharing “stories of grace.” In naming “grace” as central to the kind of storytelling in which I think we ought to reinvest, I am interested in the ways in which one learns to translate one’s own stories according to the presence of grace, which one must first learn to see. When I speak of “stories,” then, I do not have in mind the more or less definitive conversion stories that are especially revered within certain Christian communions. Instead, I am talking about something much humbler: those shorter, oftentimes simple, intentionally contained stories of particular experiences, relationships, obstacles, sufferings, joys, and even epiphanies by which those whom the Lord has looked upon have begun learning to see themselves—and, in some way, the world—in God’s light.

Learning to craft and tell these more particular kinds of stories is ordered to the lifelong task of learning how to tell one’s whole story as a response to the Lord’s look of love. The wisdom of the Christian formation germane to Catholicism in particular is that we can trust smaller practices in more ordinary things to lead, in the end, to the holistic transformation God intends for us. Over time and with practice, we learn how to cooperate with the work the Lord has already begun in us (see Phil 1:6).

Therefore, the kind of stories that I want to highlight are familiar to many, whether from retreats, youth conferences, or even parish missions. For those who have experience guiding youth and young adults in crafting and sharing “retreat talks” or “witness talks” on various topics, I want to open up a collegial conversation among fellow ministers and educators for the good of those to whom we minister and for the good of the Church. For those pastoral ministers, religious educators, and theology teachers who may not have much, if any, experience incorporating the practice of crafting and sharing stories such as these in ministry and teaching settings, I hope to propose a new possibility that fosters growth in knowledge, understanding, and love of the faith. And for those adults who, like myself, continue to work on living our lives as faithful disciples, I hope that together we can accept the challenge to become more reflective about, articulate with, and courageous in claiming the ways in which the Lord’s loving gaze illumines our lives.

If we pay attention to this practice of crafting and sharing stories of grace, we will rediscover just how important storytelling is both for the transmission of faith and for transformation in faith. We will also find ourselves pressed to refine how we think about grace, as together we become students of what God has done and is doing in the world. We will also learn why the question of identity with which I began is the most urgent and relevant question for the generation most likely to leave the Church and, therefore, is also an incomparably important question for engaging the disengaged (or the rapidly disengaging) within the mission of the new evangelization.

To find examples of the kinds of stories that are the focus of this project, please subscribe to the Stories of Grace podcast on iTunesU. 

To learn more about workshops and retreats for your parish, school, or diocese that focus on this practice of crafting and sharing stories of grace—and why it matters so much—please contact Leonard DeLorenzo directly at (574) 631-2915 or delorenzo.2@nd.edu.

Featured Image: Caravaggio (1571–1610), The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599–1600), detail; courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

[1] Pope Francis and Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America Magazine, accessed September 22, 2015, http://americamagazine.org.

[2] For more on learning to see in the light of the Resurrection, see Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: Holy Week; From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), esp. 241–77; and Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1984), esp. 68–90.

[3] Robert Barron, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1998), 1.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo is the director of Notre Dame Vision, the Notre Dame Catechist Academy, and the Notre Dame Character Project.