You may recognize this line, “To Love Another Person is to See the Face of God.” as the dying words of Jean Valijean, the hero in the play Le Miserables; Velijean was on his deathbed saying farewell to his daughter, sharing hidden truths and asking for forgiveness. The scene is powerful, the words are beautiful, and the striking melody comes alive with amazing voices. It’s awesome!
I frequently think of that line and pause to absorb its richness. It reminds me that I’m grateful for deep love towards my husband, children and parents; it reminds me of the transcendent power of love, and the words help me connect the spiritual with the tangible.
A few years ago, I saw the movie version of Le Miserables right before starting a meditation retreat; that line stuck in my head and I replayed it hundreds of times over three days. During one of the days I had an inspired idea – I would actually practice seeing the face of God in everyone, not just my loved ones. “What a concept,” I thought, “this could end conflict, judgments, and bring harmony for all.” (Duh admission: at the time, I forgot that was a biblical teaching).
I practiced the concept by gently looking at each retreat participant. I began to scan the room, one person at a time, looking at each one and telling myself this person is an image of God. The exercise was progressing beautifully; I began to feel bliss. But then my eyes landed on someone with whom I had a history of conflict. Boom! My practice stopped in its tracks and all those loving thoughts stopped with it.
I practically watched my ego walls go up, and tension replaced softness. I wasn’t interested in seeing this person as the image of God; I instinctively wanted to defend myself, to hang on to my story of our relationship, and to withhold seeing him in this loving way. I was caught off guard! I was surprised at the speed with which I moved from one extreme to the other, and I was amazed at how badly my mind wanted to keep an old upset current.
Last week, as part of his Rosh Hashanah (i.e., Jewish New Year) sermon, our Rabbi described the very same concept of seeing the face of God in others as a Biblical practice. He discussed how useful it is for generating more inclusion, acceptance, and tolerance. Just imagine how the world might be if we were to see God in each other regardless of skin color, beliefs, orientation, etc. I was inspired to revisit this practice, especially given the current political and social climate.
Tonight is the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement. From sunset on Tuesday to sunset on Wednesday, those observing the holiday will refrain from eating and drinking and spend the day praying and reflecting. This year, as I reflect on the people I have harmed and the people who have harmed me, I am going to try something different. Rather than review what I did or did not do to others and what others did or did not do to me, I am going to focus my forgiveness inquiry on the person and not merely their actions. I am going to remember that we are all humans capable of good and bad, and that we are all the image of God.
To my friends observing Yom Kippur, I wish you a fulfilling day and a meaningful fast, and to all of us, may we strive to see ourselves and everyone around us as an image of God.