“If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person,” Orthodox martyr Maria Skobtsova once reflected, “he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery…He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world”.
For those in the faith, we hold to Scripture’s teaching that man was made uniquely in the image of God. The Church Fathers recognized that this imago dei gave man a specific role and dignity in the created world. “When you see your brother, you see God,” Clement of Alexandria wrote in the 2nd century, a statement echoing the words of Christ in Matthew 25: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
But the question remains: if each person we encounter is truly an image of God, what could possibly be an adequate response? How can we authentically “receive all as Christ,” as St. Benedict commanded?
I spent a lot of time thinking about this question the year I met Mama Anna. Wrapped in traditional Maasai fabrics and wielding one of the largest smiles I have ever seen, she carried herself with assurance and a good deal of no-nonsense spunk. Even though she told me herself that she had never lived beyond that few hundred miles of rural Tanzania, I could imagine her hoisting herself in the same confident manner right down Wall Street, swinging her slender walking stick, finding the whole situation immensely entertaining.
We share maybe five words in each other’s language. To hear her story I asked questions in English, which were translated by my colleague Philip into Swahili, who then asked another young woman, Maria, to translate from Swahili into Maasai. Mama Anna would reply, and the whole game of telephone would reverse and begin again. Our conversation was stilted to say the least, yet I found myself fascinated by the other half of the story written across her lively face. Its deep lines told of years of hard labor under the burning Tanzanian sun; the set of the mouth was the patience of a woman to whom silence had often been called for; and yet the eyes were young and mischievous, full of determination and hope. When she spoke of her desire to see the children in her village have a school, she glowed with purpose. Now this is a woman, I thought, who is fully and entirely alive.