“When prayer becomes an encounter with the living God, it becomes unpredictable.” – Robert Marsh
My mildly autistic son will try, but he can’t quite put himself into another’s shoes. He’s very good at telling you how you should feel, and very bad at accepting that you have a differing perspective or feelings. The phycological term for this is mind-blindness. We’re all mind-blind until we’re about four, but it’s a forever battle for those on the autistic spectrum. My son has accepted the fact that another’s brain is filled with
differing content, reactions, emotions, but his living into that reality is another thing.
You and I, we’re not so different from my son when we approach God in prayer. Theologically, we know God is ‘other’ from us; we know He’s got his own personality, ideas and feelings, but living into that reality of God takes practice. I admit, too often, I pray to my idea of God, my image of God, or even experience God as an extension of myself… having my same thoughts, opinions, emotions. And, then I wonder why I walk out of a prayer time untouched, unchanged, with no more clarity or peace… or worse… little desire to return.
When you pray, are you talking to yourself or to your idea of God?
Is your God a living person with thoughts and feelings of God’s own, and not just an extension of your own thinking and feeling?
So, how do we overcome mind-blind prayer to engage with the holy, unpredictable living God of love?
St. Ignatius has been revered for centuries for his methods of scripture reading and prayer, but there was ONE exercise he insisted ALL spiritual disciplines should begin with. He suggested that for the length of time it would take you to pray the ‘Our Father’, you should “…consider how God our Lord is looking at you…” (I’ll admit it seems odd! But, I tried it for a month, and it not only enlivened my prayer times, it’s begun to change my daily life.) Why does Ignatius insist on this pre-prayer practice?
As a kid, I’d visit my Mammaw (that’s Southern for Grandma). Visits always began the same way. She’d command: “Sugar, let me look at you!” So, I’d stand before her as she exclaimed about each inch I’d grown or new freckle I’d sprouted on my nose. Her attention and affection were full, and every encounter ended with a second command: “Sugar, now give me some sugar!” (That’s Southern for a kiss.) While she looked at me, I looked at her. I still remember her smudged, red lipstick, the smell of her face-cream, and the feel of Mammaw’s ‘sugar’ landing upon my cheek. It was an uncontrollable intimacy!
If we can move beyond our mind-blindness and be truly present to God, prayer should bring us before the One whose is intimacy beyond our control, whose thoughts and responses take us off guard and move us into Love. Robert Marsh, author of Looking At God, Looking At You, says we need to get a sense of how God is
looking at us… specifically here and now. He says, “Ignatius’ God is an active God, a God not content to be a distant observer, a God intimately engaged with every person who prays… This God has personality.” To encounter God, rather than our familiar idea of Him, God’s gaze is a desperately needed reminder that we are not beginning our prayer time alone as individuals. If God is looking at us, He is in relationship with us. “We experience, for a moment, that we are desired, that we begin outside ourselves… We receive ourselves, in the eyes of Another” (Marsh).
Can I discover myself in the eyes of God? Can I come to see myself the way God sees me—honestly and benevolently? Me, with all the fragments, all the shame and all the glory, caught in a gaze of love, and invited into companionship with Jesus?
Here are some practical steps to begin a prayer time by letting God look at you:
1) Close your eyes. Quiet your mind. Give yourself permission to be fully present for the next few minutes.
2) Let God look at you. You might picture this or simply feel it. It’s an invitation to the God of love.
3) Reflect: What is it like to be looked at by God? How am I feeling? Can you sense HOW God is looking at you? (This is often a feeling, rather than a picture.)
4) Notice: I am looking at God, looking at me, looking at God. We see each other. Consider the God who is looking at you: What is God feeling? What is that God like?
5) Offer this experience back to God in prayer and then continue on with your devotional or prayer time ...
This article is based on Robert R. Marsh, SJ’s commentary: LOOKING AT GOD LOOKING
AT YOU Ignatius’ Third Addition Retrieved from: http://rmarsh.com/files/looking.pdf
This guest blog was written by Tonya Stanfield. Tonya has lived in Cape Town for the past 12 of her 22 years in ministry. She and her husband have pioneered Youth With A Mission (YWAM) ministries focusing on counter-human trafficking as well as the dignity and promotion of marginalised groups. She’d like to see YWAM and the Church better equipped in the areas of spiritual crisis, faith transition and contemplative practices.