When I was seventeen, I registered for a religion class on prayer and spirituality at my Catholic high school. Even though I was convinced that prayer was not for me, it was a pass/fail course that included an overnight at a retreat center and my best friend was planning to take it, too, so I figured, “What could it hurt?” As it turned out, it ended up helping more than I ever could have imagined. Not only did my entire attitude about prayer change, but I also experienced the wonderful gift of seeing myself in a way I had never seen myself before.
The shift in my outlook on prayer unfolded over the course of the trimester, as I discovered that prayer does not need to involve words or memorization or recitation; that prayer can happen when we do the things we love to do, things that restore our souls, things in which we are our best selves; that our whole lives can be prayers. The new vision of myself was more instantaneous, occurring on the evening the entire class gathered around our teacher in the basement of the retreat center—dressed in pajamas, cuddled up in sleeping bags, lounging on pillows—for the evening prayer service. The hush in the room matched the quiet snow falling outside the windows as our teacher named each student one by one and proclaimed where he saw God in each of us. There were barely concealed smiles and astonished gasps as he unveiled authentic and insightful visions of God’s presence in each of our lives. After what seemed like an interminable wait, he said, “Claire, I see God in you when you perform your floor routine at gymnastics meets.”
In my eleven years of doing gymnastics, I had never recognized, in quite this way, that when I competed, I forgot about everything else in my life, lived in the moment, reveled in the wonderful ways my body moved, and connected with my deepest self. And in connecting with my deepest self, I also connected to God. And in my seventeen years of life, I had never recognized, in quite this way, that God was a part of me and that I was a part of God. God was so close to me that God was with me when I did this thing I loved to do. To this day, I can see myself dancing and tumbling across the blue floor mat, and I smile because I see myself as God sees me: as a perfectly beautiful, loved and lovable, child of God.
When I read this week’s familiar gospel story from Luke about Zacchaeus the tax collector’s encounter with Jesus, I think that his experience must have been similar to mine on that retreat. In high school, I often felt on the margins of social life and I was used to people treating me just as “the shy, smart girl” rather than bothering to get to know me. On that retreat night, it felt as if my teacher had really seen me, in my entirety, and helped me to see myself truly, too. The empowerment that came with acknowledging my identity as someone who bears God’s image in my being is something that has stayed with me over the years, inspiring any imperfect ability I have to act for good in the world.
As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been rejected by his own Jewish people, deemed unclean for associating with the Romans and for making money in this unjust way. I have to imagine that he was used to be scoffed at for being “the tax collector” and rarely, if ever, treated as a full human being. And then Jesus comes along, calls Zacchaeus out of the tree, and asks to stay at his house, something no other self-respecting Jewish man would have done for fear of being made unclean and undesirable by association. Jesus sees Zacchaeus not just as “the tax collector” but as someone who is worth stopping to see. He is not worth this because of his wealth or his job; he is worth this because he is a human being, like the rest of us. The results of being seen truly in this way are astounding: Zachaeus resolves to give away half of his possessions and to pay back anyone he has defrauded four-fold.
There is something remarkable that happens when we receive the gift of being truly seen and also loved and accepted for who we really are. While it may happen all too rarely in our lives, we can be assured that this is the way that God always sees us. May it be that we come to see ourselves as God sees us.
When have you felt truly seen by another person? How did it feel? What did it inspire in you?