painting of St. John the Baptist by Patrick Stewart

Gazing on the Face of Jesus

Patrick Stewart

I came to Madonna House in the summer of 1988. Shortly after beginning my visit as a longterm guest, I went to Fr. Pelton, director general of priests, with a personal concern.

The icon of Christ on the front right pillar in Our Lady of the Woods Chapel was troubling me. I complained to him that Christ was frowning, even scowling, at me from the icon.

Fr. Pelton gently suggested that this was probably reflecting more about me and my sense of self than it did about Christ’s true gaze upon me.

In the early spring of 1998, some ten years later, I was assigned to Marian Centre, our house in Edmonton, Alberta. There I had a different kind of visual encounter with the Lord.

I was standing in a circle of men and women, in the shadow of Edmonton’s remand centre (city jail). Have you ever felt like a piece of glass? Let me explain.

Marian Centre is an inner city house of hospitality and service where we serve what Catherine Doherty called “Brothers Christopher,” bearers of Christ, those whom others call “the homeless” or “street people.”

What is their life like, I wondered? How are they treated on the streets and in the places they go for food and shelter?

I had only been in the house for a few months when I felt the need to join the Christophers, even for a few days, out on the streets.

I asked to do this and was given permission to spend three days and one overnight out there.

I hadn’t been at the house long enough for most of our friends who came for meals to recognize me, so I was able to move about the inner city as a poor man among other poor men and women.

I spent most of those days walking and eating, and watching and listening to the poor and to the folks who served them in inner city agencies.

On the third afternoon, I tagged along with one of the Brothers Christopher, Bill (not his real name), who decided to take me under his wing, to offer me, it seemed, some protection and friendship.

We had sat at the same lunch table in one of the soup kitchens and had exchanged a few friendly yet simple words. As he left the dining room, he motioned me to follow him.

Late in the afternoon, Bill and I joined a small group of men and women on a walking path near the remand centre (city jail).

Bottles of beer were passed around this ragtag circle while a conversation was taking place, a sharing of facts and stories about spouses, friends, and lovers, some of whom were incarcerated in the jail.

They talked about abortion, violence, and infidelity. Their words, tones of voice, and gestures reflected concern, kindness, longing, laughter, and bitterness. Each time a beer bottle came to me, I quietly passed it to the next person in the circle.

At some point in this humble human scene, I became aware of God’s mercy, as if it was light beams, streaming into the very flesh of those standing around me. It even seemed that those beams, beams of loving tenderness, were passing through me into those men and women.

Those beams of mercy were certainly not originating from me; I was struggling with feelings of judgment, curiosity, and fear. They were passing through me as if I were clear glass.

There I was, in that strange situation, with the blessing of my local director and the director general of men. So I was within the protection of the duty of the moment. And the Lord, for just a moment, pulled aside the curtain that hides his mercy and allowed me to see it.

He allowed me to stand between those men and women and himself like a glass lens through which shone rays of his loving mercy. And his mercy was for me as well.

God’s teaching me about his loving mercy continued. Over the past few years, I have come to know that the printed word cannot fully convey an intended communication.

In our face-to-face conversations, for example, there are times when we use harsh, critical, even fierce-sounding words but are actually communicating something else. It is the look on our face, our kind or comical or teasing eyes that inform the receiver of this.

I have also learned from many of my brothers and sisters in Madonna House who lived with Catherine Doherty, that no matter how harsh her words sometimes were, they saw love in her eyes. They knew she loved them.

This understanding changed the way I read Scripture. Now when I read it, I try to imagine the face, be it that of Christ or St. Paul or one of the Old Testament prophets—especially when the printed words seem most bitter.

With St. John the Baptist I had, until recently, imagined a scowl and sternly rebuking eyes. But I am an artist, and a painting of St. John the Baptist that I have been working on over the last couple of years changed that.

The face in the painting was gradually transformed into the face I now see when I read his rebukes and warnings. I believe that the Lord and St. John have been guiding me in this painting.

What does it look like? Imagine a strong face with eyes that penetrate into the depths of your heart. Imagine this same face conveying compassion for your sinfulness and brokenness even as they sharply pierce into your darkness with searing light. This is mercy-light, a light of the Good Shepherd, who is also the Lamb of God.

This light leaves no spaces for shadow, so it can be painful, confronting, as it exposes all that is ugly and shameful and sinful.

But I have discovered that St. John was not set on condemning or judging but rather on blessing all who came toward him at the waters of his Baptism. He was offering each and all a new beginning and pointing them toward the Lamb of God, the way back home to the Father.

How much more does Christ want to show us the way home, to envelop us in his tender love and mercy!

I have spent much time over the years gazing at icons of Christ. And today when I stand before his icon in our island chapel of Our Lady of the Woods, the one that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I still feel the intensity of Christ’s gaze. But now it is a gaze under-girded by great mercy.