Looking is What Saves Us

If a thing is to speak to you, you must for a certain time regard it as the only thing that exists, the unique phenomenon that your diligent and exclusive love has placed at the center of the universe,
something that angels serve that very day 
upon that matchless spot.

Rainer Maria Rilke

I carry her picture with me this Lent. I cannot escape her face.

On a cold Ash Wednesday afternoon, I sit at my desk in a quiet classroom and study every detail of her little face and tiny hands.

I want to ask her to pray for us – to forgive us for what we are about to do to her – but I can find neither the words nor the audacity to ask such a thing.

The fading smudge of ashes on my forehead mocks me when I think of the fire that this nation is about to unleash on her people.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Paralyzed. Powerless. I can only look at her and cry. What do I know of fasting? Penance? Suffering?

Today the President rejected yet another plea from the Pope to forsake war; today the President spent the afternoon strategizing with his top military advisors.

Today is the first day of Lent.

I came across her picture last Friday in a weekly magazine. The cutline is terse and objective: “Iraqi children light candles in a church in Baghdad.” I have carried it with me ever since.

A little girl of about seven who bears an uncanny resemblance to our third daughter, Hannah.

Gazing over her left shoulder in a darkened corner of the black and white photo is a handsome boy of about 12 – perhaps her older brother. The bottom of the picture illuminated by a score of white vigil candles that highlights her small face. She wears a snug woolen hat trimmed with fleece and a matching oversized coat. In her left hand she holds an unlit candle that she carefully extends toward the dancing flames in front of her.

It is her face and fingers that transfix me.

I think of a line from Simone Weil that I once quoted in an essay I was writing for school: “Looking is what saves us.”

At the time I thought I understood the meaning of these words, but looking into the eyes of this little girl and contemplating her tiny hands, I realize that my former understanding was more intellectual than visceral, more general than particular.

Looking – really looking – brings with it the awful knowledge that our salvation hinges, in a very real way, on our seeing her.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to our looking – or refusing to look – at one little girl. This particular little girl. If we cannot see her, we cannot see ourselves and we are lost.

Oh that the world would consent to be saved by looking at one little girl in Baghdad.

Look, Mr. President, at her dark, close-set eyes fixed in an altar full of candles.

Do you see the anxiety, the questions, the vulnerability in those eyes? Do you see her gently curved nose and her set mouth as she concentrates on the task of lighting her stump of a candle without burning herself?

Look! Do you see her?

Look, Mr. Cheney, at her stubby fingers poking out of a trailing sleeve as they awkwardly curl themselves around a candle. Those childish fingers that should be clutching chubby crayons and playing in the mud.

Look closely! Do you see her?

Look, Mr. Rumsfeld, Ms. Rice, Mr. Powell, at this child who was knit in her mother’s womb by a Parent who loved her before the world was made and knows the number of hairs tucked inside her woolen cap.

She is a miracle. She is only a little less than the angels.

Could any of you who have the power to destroy her with your big missiles and deadly weapons have created so much as a single black eyelash or a bent knuckle?

Look at her closely before you drop your bombs.

Look at her, all you senators, think tanks, moneymakers, and warmongers, and see your collateral damage and the price of your profits and empire.

Look, America, and see the face of your daughter, your neighbor, your friend.

Look at this little girl closely and carefully, my sisters and brothers, and see the face of Jesus. Her blood – the blood of Christ – is on our hands.

Lord, have mercy.

On the Edge, Detroit Catholic Worker, Lent 2003