Who do I pay attention to? That is the question I keep asking myself after reading the reflection of Fr. Tom McKenna of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission on FamVin. Another way he puts it is “noticing the unnoticed”. Those who have gone before us in the Vincentian tradition notice the unnoticed because they pay attention to the poor and the lowly.
The Grace of Visibility (James 2: 1-5)
America Magazine (8/06/18) recently featured an article entitled “Becoming Invisible.” The author observes how in both the early and ending years of life, a person is less visible to the surrounding world. A newly born looking out over her mother’s shoulder is hardly noticed, but when the eye of a grinning adult locks onto hers, something vital awakens: “I am seen; I am….” The older gentleman walking down the street senses that fewer people look at him passing by, show him that certain flicker of interest. This hunger to be seen (“be desired, be a taken as a person and not simply a role”) is a deep human one and is put there by the Creator. Lacking it, not only the elderly but anyone who goes unacknowledged senses some void. To be “seen” is to know I am not invisible; it is to experience myself as God’s looked-upon child.
In his letter, James plays on this theme of noticing and not noticing. Who gets your attention when they walk into a room, he asks? The man with the golden rings and tailored clothes or the commonly dressed woman with no accessories and shabby shoes? Who is given the favor (grace) of being looked at and who is overlooked? James says it’s especially the unobtrusive ones the disciple should be regarding, those hidden in the back of the room. They are God’s beloved too and need your interest just as much if not more. By acting as if they are invisible you blunt the love coming from God’s gaze upon them.
This noticing of the unnoticed is a pervasive theme through the Bible. Who is it the Lord feeds, but the hungry, the ones who are bowed down, the shunted aside orphan and widow. Who is it the Lord choses to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, but the neglected of this earth, the ones routinely bypassed in the run of a busy day.
Isaiah also trumpets this visibility. To those who are frightened and feeling vulnerable, he assures the caring glance of the Lord. “Here comes your God to save you,” (Is 35:5) he proclaims. You are visible in God’s eyes, you are noticed and picked out and looked upon with special love. You are not invisible.
A corroborating Gospel incident is where Jesus and the Twelve enter the Temple when contributions are being given. The disciples’ attention swings to the large donors, the ones throwing gold and jewelry into the collection. By contrast, Jesus’ eyes follow an elderly widow who slips in to drop her tiny copper coin. Invisible to most everyone, she is “seen” by Jesus. He imparts to her the grace of recognition. Another instance is when his band passes right by a group of children while Jesus stops and tells them to come and gather round. In his company, these little ones are seen.
This is his consistent pattern, noticing the unnoticed, fixing his eyes on the blind and the crippled and the deaf and the outcast — and so stirring their inner worth. Surely Vincent’s refrain to see the Christ in the other, especially in the suffering and poor other, is our signature call to go and see likewise.
Jesus’ example is unmistakable to disciples of any age. Being “seen” is life-giving. Being “invisible” deadens the spirit. The Creator looks out at creation and, as Genesis puts it, “sees it is good.” To take notice of the overlooked in society, to fix a positive attention on the least celebrated, to give visibility to the mostly invisible is to do what Our Lord continues to do – shine the saving light of personal recognition on the least of the brothers and sisters.