Newman Barbara

Person to person: becoming present

There may be few things in life that we take more for granted than vision—until it fails us.  In my case, that happened early:  I was born so nearsighted that I have worn glasses since the age of eight and contact lenses since I was fifteen.  This summer, though, I had an extraordinary experience.  After decades of near-blindness, I had surgery on both eyes—and now, suddenly, those lenses are a thing of the past!  No more groping blindly for a hotel bathroom in the dark; no more fumbling with my contacts on a transatlantic flight.  I have been learning to see all over again—a process that can be frustrating, that requires patience and adjustment, but what joy!  So, when Elena asked me to speak at a conference about “learning to see,” I had to smile.  For this process of acquiring new physical vision is not unlike what I experienced more than thirty years ago, when I first met Metropolitan Anthony and learned to see—a little—with the eyes of Christ.

Our theme is one that was central to the bishop’s teaching and practice:  he had the gift not only to see with God’s eyes, but to convey that vision, to make people aware of it.  Standing in his presence could be unnerving.  An encounter with him, even in private, always felt to me like walking into a spotlight on a stage.  Anyone who steps into that circle of light will be brilliantly illumined—from without and from within.  There is no way to hide from that light, no way to banish it, any more than by blinking we can extinguish the sun.  It is a true light, not a flattering one; flaws do not vanish.  Yet whatever it touches, it reveals as beautiful.  To stand in that light, seeing and being seen in it, is a searingly personal experience.  Yet in a different sense, it is completely impersonal, for anyone at all would have the same experience just by being on the spot.  The light does not shine because of any special quality in the one who stands there, nor does it shine in spite of any.  It simply shines.

I do not think we can see with God’s eyes until, at least once, we have had the experience of being seen with them.  If we are lucky, that happens in ordinary human love—between friends or lovers, between parent and child.  But the ability to see everyone in such a way—not just our dearest friends or people we admire, but everyone, from the screaming infant to the dangerous enemy—that is both a discipline and a gift.  Like every gift of the Holy Spirit, it is given freely, but we first have to ask for it—and show with our whole life how much we long for it.  How then do we learn to see?

First, if we are Christians, we know the Incarnation is a lens provided by God himself—a precise way to focus divine light so we can see it, to filter God’s light so we can bear it.  Through this lens alone, we truly see God and the world.  So many other lenses obstruct our eyes, like grimy windows or distorting mirrors, that we are not even aware of them.  First there are the lenses of sheer self-interest.  Looking through those glasses, I see that I am the center of the universe, and other people matter only insofar as they can help or harm me.  This is the devil’s vision—and if we want to see truly, we have to resist it every day of our lives.  But there is also a lens of convention, “the way of the world,” that frames our vision so we can see who matters and who doesn’t.  Rich people matter; beautiful, well-dressed people matter; powerful people in important positions matter.  Crazy and unpleasant people, invalids, poor people, refugees, people in distant corners of the world, do not matter—so we do not need to see them or pay attention to them at all.  These, however, are the very people to whom Jesus came and still comes.  All those distorting lenses, which fit our fallen eyes so conveniently, are polished each day by mass media and advertising. So learning to see requires us to tear ourselves away from every form of vision that magnifies our self-importance, appeals to our desires for prestige and power, or reinforces our sense that money talks louder than truth.

Only through the Incarnation do we truly see God.  If Jesus was the incarnate Son of God—“light from light, true God from true God”—then as Christians, we can never see God apart from Jesus.  Bishop Anthony was stunningly clear on this point:  if we still think of God in terms of absolute power, apart from humility and sacrificial love, we have at best a kind of Old Testament Christianity.  (By this I do not mean Judaism.  The Old Testament offers us a raw, often frightening vision of God’s power; but that is qualified by the Talmud and centuries of Jewish wisdom and holiness, just as it is by the New Testament.)  Christ said that what we do—or neglect to do—for “the least of these,” his brothers and sisters, we do for him.  In this context, not to see God among the most vulnerable means not to see him at all, because that is where he chose to take his stand.  This has implications for our politics, but also for the Church and its hierarchy.  In one of his talks, the bishop memorably remarked that the Church is not a pyramid, as we often think, with the bishops and prelates forming a narrow layer at the top and the ordinary faithful at the bottom.  Rather, it is an inverted pyramid:  the faithful are on top and the bishops have the lowest place of all, because they are the slaves whose task it is to bear the weight of the whole![i]

Only through the Incarnation do we truly see the world.  Christ was and is double, fully God and fully man.  Like him, we all exist here and now, in our messy human reality, but we also exist in eternity—as the perfected, glorious selves we shall become if God grants us to attain the resurrection.  To see with the eyes of Christ is to see both at once, the divine beauty and the complicated work-in-progress that each one of us is—and I know that Bishop Anthony could do that, because he saw beauty in me when I myself saw only weakness and confusion.  To see in Christ means to see other persons as images of Christ, as possessing infinite depth and value.  But here we may need to think more deeply about what a “person” is.  So I want to say a few words about the bishop’s place in a major theological movement of the twentieth century—the tradition known as personalism, which characterizes the best of modern religious thought.

I am struck by a remarkable coincidence between Bishop Anthony’s life and that of the French Catholic theologian, Jacques Maritain.  As a young student in Paris, Maritain despaired of finding any meaning in life beyond materialism. So he and his fiancée, Raissa, made a pact that if they did not succeed in their quest for meaning after one year, they would both commit suicide.[ii]  That must have been the temper of the times because, as I’m sure you know, the young André Blum made the same vow when he was a student in Paris.  Fortunately, God intervened and none of them had to kill themselves!  Like Bishop Anthony, Jacques and Raissa Maritain turned to Christ.  All of them were influenced by the Russian religious philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, who had also espoused personalist philosophy.  Berdyaev maintained that there is a profound difference between the mere individual and the person, who is created in the image of the Holy Trinity. In Slavery and Freedom, he wrote, “Man is a personality not by nature but by spirit. By nature he is only an individual.”[iii] What Berdyaev meant by an “individual” is something like Leibniz’s monad, a self-contained enclosure without windows or doors.  As a secular philosophy, individualism aims at self-actualization, rather than mutuality or love.  While it may respect the rights of others, it regards the individual as an autonomous self whose goal is to achieve his own happiness.  Persons, on the other hand, flourish only in relationship to other persons:  they exist on the model of the three divine Persons, as “the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father.”  Living in mutual relation, Berdyaev writes, the person “enters into infinity, and admits infinity into itself; in its self-revelation it is directed towards an infinite content.”[iv]

Personalism is a happy mean between individualism, which elevates the lone individual’s desires above the needs of others, and collectivism, which crushes the individual beneath the weight of society.  A goal of personalist thought is to contemplate the human being from within, as a free moral agent living in voluntary communion with others, rather than a member of some category such as workers, voters, or consumers.  Another important figure in this tradition was the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who famously stressed the importance of I-Thou relationships.  If materialism allows us to treat the other as an object that we can manipulate—an “it” rather than a “you”—personalism demands that we regard each person as a subject like ourselves, respecting the dignity and the uniqueness of every human creature.  For Buber, any “I” who says “Thou” to another must be present as a whole self to a whole self.  This is true above all of God, the eternal Thou, who sustains all relationships and is knowable only through dialogue and presence.  Gabriel Marcel, a French Catholic theologian, shared this perspective.  He emphasized the moral goal of disponibilité, or becoming so emptied of ourselves that we are always available to the other—available to see, to love, and to give.  It was Marcel who insisted, against absurdist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, that the opposite of absurdity is love; this alone reaches beyond the death of the body into the eternal.  Bishop Anthony liked to quote the line of a character in one of Marcel’s plays:  “To love any person is to say, ‘you will never die.’”[v]  In Russia, Nikolai Lossky drew on personalist ideas in developing his concept of sobornost, or mystical communion in the Church.  The Polish philosopher Karol Wojtyla taught ethics at the University of Lublin, but is better known today as Pope John Paul II—soon to be canonized.  During his papacy he applied personalist thought to the relationship between man and woman, which was also the subject of an important series of talks Bishop Anthony gave in 1989.

Father Anthony never thought of himself as a scholar and rarely cited sources for anything he said.  He presented himself as a simple monk, not a theologian.  But we should not forget that he was well-read in many languages and familiar with modern religious thought, as well as the Church Fathers.  Setting him within the personalist tradition, which he would have encountered everywhere in mid-twentieth-century Paris, helps us to contextualize his work, to see him in the light of a broader movement of the Holy Spirit in the modern Church.  In the 1950s and 60s the bishop was also active in ecumenical work.  For instance, he often spoke to the young people who gathered at the French ecumenical monastery of Taizé, founded by Brother Roger—a Protestant holy man who died a martyr in 2005.  Bishop Anthony had many spiritual sons and daughters at Taizé.  In the 1950s he even spoke at a seminary in my home town of Evanston, Illinois—but I was a small child at the time, so I wasn’t there!  It is important to place his teaching in an ecumenical as well as a Russian Orthodox context, because his work for Christian unity was an important spur to his theology of encounter.  How could it not be?  Ecumenical work involves meeting the other face to face and seeking common ground where only discord appears at first—and if you ever heard the bishop speak about the Roman Catholic Church, you know that for him, the divisions were very real.  So I take my first quotation on “learning to see” from an address he delivered for Christian Unity Week in 1970.

If you think of one single day, how many people have crossed your path, how few have [you] looked at and seen?  We run into each other, we cross one another’s path—we do not see each other.  We must learn—and this is a training in inner discipline, in human attention, in concern—we must learn to look at every person who crosses our path, to look and see the features, the expression in their eyes, take in the whole person.  And then how often it will happen that a perfect stranger will move us deeply by the anguish there is in his face, the fear, the insecurity, or on the contrary the joyous fragrance that emanates from him. … Indifference sees nothing, hatred sees caricatures; only love can see the beauty of an ugly face, the image of God shining through the ugliness and the pollution.[vi]


Seeing, then, begins with looking—with a simple will to see.  It is like Buber’s I-Thou relationship, like Marcel’s practice of disponibilité.  In a sermon on gratitude, the bishop specified that this “demands an inner effort of self-denial, of forgetfulness of self, the ability to see, to experience, to wonder in amazement.”[vii]  Forgetfulness of self—one of those pious Christian phrases, so easy to say, so difficult to do!  Let me say more, because in order to begin seeing, we need to be more deeply aware of the reasons we fail to see.  Aside from the issue of prejudice that I mentioned earlier, there is simply our chronic self-absorption.  We are in a hurry, we have other things on our minds, we see these same people every day, so why bother to look?  Alternatively, we may never see them again, so why bother to look?  Routine is another scourge.  When I go to the doctor’s office, the nurse is so busy asking questions and recording what I say in her computer that she forgets to look at me, and if I want to talk about my actual problem, I feel almost rude.   Or a student comes to my office with questions about the final exam, questions I have heard many times before; so if I am not careful, I too forget to look.

The wonders of technology can help us encounter the other; I cannot count all the email exchanges I had with Elena before making my way to Moscow!  But technology can also stand between us and reality.  Take the camera—a perfect example of the double-edged potential of technology.  Photography can be a true way of seeing, capturing the essence of a face or the finest angles of a building—but it can also be a way of not seeing.  A few years ago, visiting the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, I spent about half an hour gazing at the mosaic of Christ in the gallery.  During that time, I would estimate that three dozen tourists came along, snapped photos with their cell phone cameras, and went their way without ever looking.  This strikes me as a metaphor for what we so often do, creating instant “memories” and taking them as more real than the event in the present moment.  A new obstacle to seeing has arisen since Bishop Anthony’s time, and that is the plague of scripted encounters mediated by technology.  In America, at least, electronic devices not only enable, but often demand this substitution of rote conversations for real ones.  Nowadays you can telephone anyone from the bank to the airline, and you will hear a mechanical voice saying, “This call may be recorded for quality assurance.”  What does that really mean?  As our friend Edward Snowden has revealed, it means that Big Brother is always listening, or at least he might be.  But even if he’s not, it means a supervisor is listening to make sure the agent doesn’t depart from her script, risking a real conversation that could go in unpredictable directions.  Under such conditions, no true listening or seeing is possible.  The person has vanished, replaced by an individual who is only a cog in a machine.

Sometimes, then, learning to see will mean being subversive, deliberately refusing to play by the rules.  Bishop Anthony did this all the time, cutting across pious and polite expectations to ask an honest question.  It was impossible to compliment him by saying, “Oh, what a beautiful sermon you gave last week!” because instead of replying “thank you so much,” he would look you in the face and ask, “So what have you done about it?”  If you tried to weasel out of embarrassing details in confession by saying you had broken every commandment, he would confront you and ask why you were lying to God.  And he must have deeply shocked the delegates at the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, 1961, when he “protested because one of the documents began with the words ‘guided by the Holy Spirit’ and then went on from one desperate platitude to another.”  He asked the assembly to remove those words, saying, “why should we accuse the Holy Spirit of all the inanities that we have put into this document?”[viii]  The bishop had no tolerance for lies or evasions.  He had learned to find “truth in the inward being and wisdom in the secret heart,” as the psalm puts it.  If he often seemed to know his spiritual children better than we knew ourselves, it was because he could see beneath the surface where, for the time being, we might find ourselves stuck.

For a few years after I left London for America, I kept up a correspondence with Bishop Anthony.  At one point I found myself in trouble because, out of empathy for a mentally troubled friend, I came close to having a nervous breakdown myself.  I wrote to him about this and he replied with some very specific advice about seeing:

In order to see, whether it is a human face or a [work] of art, one must find the right distance (which varies with one’s sight).  If you are too far, you discern only contours and miss the detail; if you come too near, you may miss the object altogether—see no statue, but only the stone; see no painting, but only paint and canvas.  So is it also with human relationships:  coming too close, clinging, holding, does not allow us to see the other, but—at best ‘us’, the two ‘blended together’, or more often, ourselves reflected in the other.  … [We may] allow another person to invade us psychologically while we are in the delusion that, by doing this, we carry the other person’s burden.  In reality, we deprive the other person of our own otherness and of the help which a confrontation with it could bring.[ix]

Much of the time, we fail to see because we are too distant; but in intimate relationships, we are often too close.  Thus we lose the detachment, the critical distance, that is an essential element of love.  This was a hard lesson for me to learn, and I suspect it is one that will require the rest of my life to discover.

True seeing, like prayer, has everything to do with a certain quality of presence.  In prayer we may feel that God is absent, sometimes for years on end.  But our theology tells us he is present always and everywhere, for if he were not, the world would cease to exist.  Rather, we ourselves are the absent ones—and this is also true in our encounters with others.  Bishop Anthony observed that much of the time, we are at best half-present, we half-listen, while another part of our mind is thinking about a dozen other things.  So common is this failure of attention that real presence, when we do experience it, can be shocking.  Let me quote from Gillian Crow’s biography of the bishop, for she describes an impression that I suspect all of us have felt:

There was an inner stillness about him that produced a certain sense of spiritual awe, but this complemented rather than opposed his warmth and openness.  . . . Metropolitan Anthony always aimed to give of himself one hundred per cent, and this included his total attention and commitment to whomever he was speaking.  His piercing gaze and his perceptive and invariably encouraging words contributed to the impression that speaker and hearer were inseparably held in the hand of God, and that the person’s concerns were the only things that mattered to him.  He never listened with one eye on the clock or half a mind on what he was going to say next.  Since this is not what commonly happens in human communication—it takes training and determined effort to stop intrusive thoughts—it was a startling experience.[x]


Words like discipline, training, effort, attention, self-denial, have run throughout this talk.  It will surprise no one if I recall that Bishop Anthony was a monk, that he was able to make himself so translucent to God’s love only by virtue of his intense ascetic practice.  But let me give another example, this time a secular one that might shock you in a different way.  A woman named Marina Abramovič presented a work of performance art for three months in the spring of 2010, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  She called her work “The Artist Is Present.”  Every day, for seven and a half hours, Abramovič sat on a chair in a gallery, with spectators seated nearby behind a rope.  Anyone who wished—and arrived early enough—could sit in another chair opposite hers for as long as he or she liked.  All day long Abramovič did not rise from her chair.  Clad in a long robe, she did not speak, eat, drink, or move her body; she simply gazed at the one who faced her, fully present.  Men, women, and children came and went.  Often those who sat with her reported that they lost all sense of time; they had intended to sit for only fifteen minutes, but wound up staying an hour or two.  Many had deep spiritual experiences.  They felt their breathing change, their bodies becoming relaxed yet alert, as in prayer; they knew themselves to be loved.  Some wept or entered into trance or had visions; at least one had a telepathic conversation with Abramovič.  Almost all who came with an open mind remarked that “something happened,” something they had not expected and could not easily describe.[xi]

“The artist is present.”  If you think what Abramovič did was easy, try doing it for just one hour!  She has had, in her own way, an intense ascetic training.  Performance art uses the artist’s body as its medium, and in previous works, Abramovič has stabbed herself with knives, set herself on fire, and posed with serpents; once she lay naked and bleeding on a cross of ice. If you saw photos, you might find these works to be obscene.  Nevertheless, here is a woman who has tamed her body, making it transparent to the spirit.  I have no idea if she is a believer, though I know that her great-uncle Varnava was Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church.  What Abramovič delivered, during her three months of being-present, was a concentrated version of what Hindus calls darshan, the unmitigated loving gaze.  A few Indian holy men and women are famous for this practice and travel around the world offering it to their devotees.  So great is the power of presence, of simple seeing—and so great is the hunger for it in our distracted world.

To conclude:  vision of that kind requires that we be present, not just as individuals going about our business, but as free persons, unscripted, without expectations.  It demands that we strip from our eyes the distorting lenses of convention, self-interest, and routine.  It asks us to draw near, to risk intimacy, yet without sacrificing the critical distance that keeps us honest.  It can occur only when we give our full attention instead of “multi-tasking,” as our hurried world prefers.  And of course, no act of seeing takes place without light.  For when we truly look at the other, we also look toward God, whose presence may shine through us whether we know it or not.  I used to wonder, when I saw Christ gazing at me from Bishop Anthony’s face, if he was aware of it.  Was he at that moment in a state of exalted prayer, or just doing his human best and leaving the rest to the Holy Spirit?  I will never know. But if I had dared to ask, I think he would have said our emotional states do not matter.  God asks only our will, our obedience; the rest is not our concern.

[i] Metr. Anthony of Sourozh, sixth forum talk on the theme of “Man and Woman,” London, 26 June 1989; quoting Archimandrite Sophrony of the monastery of St. John the Baptist, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex.  Typescript (personal copy).

[ii] Donald DeMarco, “The Christian Personalism of Jacques Maritain,” Faith and Reason, Summer 1991; online at

[iii] Nicolas Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, trans. R. M. French (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), 21.

[iv] Ibid., 22.

[v] “Aimer un être, … c’est dire:  toi, tu ne mourras pas.”  Gabriel Marcel, Homo Viator:  Prolégomènes à une métaphysique de l’espérance (Paris: Aubier Éditions Montaigne, 1944), 194.

[vi] Metr. Anthony of Sourozh, “Encounter,” address for Christian Unity Week, London, January 1970.  Typescript (personal copy).

[vii] Metr. Anthony of Sourozh, sermon on gratitude, Ennismore Gardens, December 1981.  Typescript (personal copy).

[viii] Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches, New Delhi, 1961, as reported in Metr. Anthony of Sourozh, “Our Relationship with the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity,” trans. Esther Williams; address given in Fribourg, 1970.  Typescript (personal copy).

[ix] Metr. Anthony of Sourozh, personal correspondence, 5 August 1984.

[x] Gillian Crow, ‘This Holy Man’:  Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005), 196-97.

[xi] Marina Abramovič, The Artist Is Present, documentary film (2013); Marco Anelli, Portraits in the Presence of Marina Abramovič (photographs), 2010; Yazmany Arboleda, “Bringing Marina Flowers,” Huffington Post Blog, 28 May 2010; “The Honor of Witnessing Marina Abramovič,” at; James Westcott, When Marina Abramovič Dies:  A Biography (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2010).