Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen: On Benevolent Glancing

Mary Evelyn Jegen
Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen, SND
This is an extract from an interview I did with Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen, SND, sometime in the mid-80s and published (not sure of the date) in “Reconciliation International,” the journal of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Mary Evelyn died on July 4, 2014. An obituary is attached.– Jim Forest

A news item about Pope John Paul’s visit to Southeast Asia a few years ago provided an opening in my search to integrate prayer and peace work. It was reported that, in meeting the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhists of Thailand, protocol required that they first sit together in absolute silence while “exchanging benevolent glances.” The story intrigued me. I wondered what it was like to exchange benevolent glances with a stranger. Did Pope John Paul have to practice in advance? What was the difference between just plain looking and benevolent glancing?

As I do not drive, I spend much of my life in buses. What better place, I thought, to experiment with benevolent glancing? At first I felt a bit awkward. I did not try to engage anyone’s eyes, so benevolent glancing was strictly a unilateral initiative.

A strange thing happened. I found I was praying. I don’t mean saying prayers. I was being attentive, alert and aware in a way impossible to describe. I was very much “with” a mysterious depth of reality. I was looking at others not merely with curiosity but with love. After all, love is what benevolence is all about: the word means “to wish another well.”

After a year of practice, I happened to meet a Buddhist priest. In his family he was of the fortieth consecutive generation of Buddhist priests. He said that the Buddhist way of seeing is different than the western approach. Westerners want to extract data, to “take” what they can from what they see, while a Buddhist tries simply to be present, to allow reality to present itself, to wait for it to come forward to meet the eye.

What has this got to do with peace? Very much. Benevolent glancing is an art of attentiveness. Paying attention to what is before us is a way of prayer, even a definition of prayer. We know by faith that God is everywhere. Benevolent glancing is relishing God by being attentive to what is before us.

My experience has been that persons who would be uncomfortable in considering contemplative prayer as something for themselves can nevertheless become enthusiastic about benevolent glancing. It seems to correspond to an unexpressed desire. A person who would shy away from contemplative prayer, through benevolent glancing, will in fact practice it.

Peacemaking and contemplation are so intimately related that one can hardly exist without the other. This truth can be appreciated by recognizing that violence depends on distorting the object or the victim of violence, turning the victim into an impersonal object which can then be injured or even killed. An army officer told me that killing in war is much easier now that soldiers don’t have to see the faces of the enemy. In modern war we are able to describe the death of people as “collateral damage.” Psychologically, it would be impossible to kill anyone on whom one had just been casting a loving glance. The day we teach people to look at persons behind the abstractions, to glance benevolently at them, the military-industrial complex will have a serious problem.

There is a huge difference between staring and benevolent glancing. To practice benevolent glancing is to experience deeply stirred emotions–from embarrassment and fear to compassion and love. Fear of invading the privacy of another person causes the embarrassment, but this initial feeling can be shaped into what we traditionally call modesty, a way of respect, reverence, even awe to be in the presence of the splendor of the human person who is “little less than the angels…crowned with glory and honor.”

To practice benevolent glancing is to expose oneself to pain and suffering. To take a bus ride is to come into direct contact with the embodiment of suffering: to see the deep lines in a face, the sag of the shoulders. I look carefully at one person at a time, allowing that person’s truth to come home to me. It is not always an older person whose body bears the marks of a life of endurance. It can be a high school student. In these cases I often have to deal with my own irritation and impatience at the behavior of teenagers. Before long I find myself seeing someone beautiful.

People who ride the bus are often poor, but, poor or not, one thing we have in common is that we are not in change. We are dependent on others and know our dependence. This group atmosphere tends to make the atmosphere less assertive than in other places.

I have discovered that benevolent glancing often has a ripple effect. I have the impression that I am not alone in the exercise. I can testify that if one seeks it, gently and attentively, there is often a profound sense of God’s presence in a bus.

Appreciation and admiration for others evokes a more active benevolence, a desire for the good of the other persons. While this rarely translates into a particular act at the time, it does affect the deep structure of the personality of the one practicing benevolent glancing. When the occasion arises, I find I am more apt to act constructively.

To be attentive to a suffering person is quite different than attention to a merry child. A benevolent glance toward a suffering person is an act of compassion. It is compassion that acts as a bridge from attentiveness to action, an action that can be healing and liberating.

Caring is essential to peacemaking. Peace is the goal of the universal longing for order in relationships, with the earth itself, with others, with God. To care is to be in peace while one is peacemaking. Pablo Casals once wrote: “I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”

The gospel accounts show us Jesus looking with keen attention. This appears to have been his habitual way of seeing. How else to account for his easy and spontaneous use of imagery to carry home a point! Jesus didn’t go through life with his eyes closed, uninterested in the homey events of daily experience. He saw each face. Think of the encounter with the rich young man. Mark says, “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him.”

I have never minded riding in a bus, but since that first experiment of benevolent glancing a few years ago, I look forward to bus riding as a great adventure. If the day ever comes when I have no need to ride the bus in order to get somewhere, I will ride the bus anyway simply for the joy of benevolent glancing.

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Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen
February 15, 1928 – July 4, 2014

Marilyn Jegen was the second of five children in a family that encouraged creativity and learning, love of the grandeur of nature and deep faith. Her desire to give herself totally to God led her to religious life. She wanted to enter an apostolic Institute and perhaps it was a resonance with Saint Julie’s desire that her daughters have “hearts wide as the world” that helped draw her to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur where she received the name Sister Mary Evelyn.

Sister Mary Evelyn taught at the elementary and secondary levels for eleven years before being missioned to St. Louis University for her doctoral studies. Those studies took her to London, England for her first international experience of Notre Dame and the world outside of the United States. After completing her doctorate she began teaching at the college and university level.

It was while serving as an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Dayton that she had an experience that changed her life. Some students asked her to help them file for conscientious objection. That request led her to take issues to prayer that raised new questions and insights, and opened her heart to a new call. She later said: “They converted me. I remember the date and hour of my decision. I was on retreat, and said to myself: ‘This is where I stand. From now on I work for peace.'”

Sister Mary Evelyn began her work for peace in Rome at Regina Mundi Institute. While teaching there she also designed and carried out an international research project for the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. The area of research was the emergence of the peace and justice movement during the Second Vatican Council, and the subsequent development of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace and its ecumenical offspring. This research took her to other parts of Europe, to India, and to the United States. She returned to the United States and taught Catholic Social Teaching and Christian Spirituality courses at Mundelein College, Creighton University and the Education for Parish Service Program at Trinity College, Washington, D.C.

Starting in 1976, Sister Mary Evelyn combined teaching with board and staff positions in national and international religious peace and justice movements. She served as the first executive director of the Bread for the World Educational Fund, as the first director of Mundelein’s Center for Women and Peace, helped establish the U.S. branch of Pax Christi, and served as Pax Christi USA’s first national coordinator.

Under her direction Pax Christi USA grew to be a major factor in the religious peace movements in the U.S. Her work went beyond the borders of the U.S. During this period she made nine trips to Europe to coordinate the work of the U.S. branch with other national branches of the Pax Christi movement. She was appointed to the Pax Christi Human Rights Commission. In 1984 she was elected to the executive committee of Pax Christi International, and also elected vice president. Sister Mary Evelyn introduced the Pax Christi movement in India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. She served as a representative for Pax Christi International at the United Nations from 1992-2001, and continued work on Pax Christi International’s Peace Spirituality Project. In addition Sister Mary Evelyn began working at both the international and the national levels with a new interfaith movement, Global Peace Services in 1989.

Sister Mary Evelyn lectured extensively on peace and justice issues at numerous workshops, conferences and symposiums at home and abroad. She served as editor of proceedings for some of the symposiums, and edited several books. She also wrote prolifically: articles for newspapers and magazines, book reviews, pamphlets and books. Some of the publications of her work appeared in Fellowship Magazine, New Catholic World, and The National Catholic Reporter. Her books included Following the Nonviolent Jesus, How You Can be a Peacemaker: Catholic Teaching and Practical Suggestions and Just Peacemakers.

Sister Mary Evelyn also witnessed for peace. Praying for peaceful solutions to the First Gulf War, she asked others to join her as she began a 24-day prayer vigil outside the White House in response to a “personal call to generate a prayerful presence around the White House.” In 2006 she was one of four anti-war demonstrators arrested at the Cincinnati office of a U.S. House Representative.

In community Sister Mary Evelyn took an individual interest in each Sister. She shared her gifts of bread making (which for her was a prayer experience) and cooking, planning and leading prayer and gently facilitating community meetings. She brought joyful energy to relationships, the concerns of the world to the intentions of community prayer, thoughtful insights to all levels of community discussions, and beauty into her surroundings through her gift for gardening. During her years at Mount Notre Dame Sister Mary Evelyn faithfully visited her Sisters in the Health Center, often bringing a flower from her garden. She would share tea with them, take them for walks, share poetry with them and often discuss something she had just read or heard on the news. She appreciated the time she spent with each Sister-friend.

She valued her relationships with her family and friends. She treasured visits with her family, delighting in each generation. She enjoyed time spent with her sisters who answered calls to other religious congregations: Sister Evelyn Jegen and Sister Carol Frances Jegen. She made friends and made herself at home wherever her work took her. She appreciated the diversity of cultures and religions. She was gifted with the ability to maintain friendships across distance and time, her heart continually expanding to embrace new people and new experiences.

Sister Mary Evelyn accepted the illness that marked her last months with the simplicity and openness to God’s presence that marked her entire life. A woman who lived what she taught, a paraphrase of Proverbs 3:17 might summarize her life: “Her ways were pleasant ways, and all her paths were peace.” The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur mourn her loss and join her family and many friends in thanking God for her life, so full of God’s goodness.

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