“When prayer becomes an encounter with the living God, it becomes unpredictable.” – Robert Marsh
No matter how my mildly autistic son might try, he can’t quite put himself into another person’s shoes. He’s very good at telling you how you should feel, and very bad at accepting that you might have a different perspective or feelings. The psychological term for this is mind-blindness. Apparently, we are all mind-blind until about age four, but for those on the autistic spectrum, it is a forever battle. My son has accepted the fact that another’s brain is filled with differing content, reactions and emotions, but his living into that reality is an ongoing challenge.
We are not so different from my son when we approach God in prayer. Theologically, we know God is ‘other’ from us. We know He has his own personality, ideas and feelings, but living into that reality of God takes practice. I admit that I too often pray to my idea of God, or my image of God. At times, I too, experience God as an extension of myself, as though He has the same thoughts, opinions and emotions that I do. And then I wonder why I walk away from a personal prayer time untouched and unchanged, with little clarity or peace…or even worse, with little desire to return.
While most of us outgrew our childlike mind-blindness in our interpersonal relationships, humankind still struggles to shed social/cultural mind-blindness. Maybe you have seen this in the current US election? One half of the country absolutely cannot understand the other half. Many are good, sincere people desperately searching for common ground with their fellow Americans (including with fellow Christians), and are finding themselves falling short.
The adage applies here: “We don’t see the world as it is; we see the world as we are.” This speaks to social mind-blindness. It tells me that I cannot be part of the solution until I am aware of how my view of reality is bent. The issue isn’t that we have our own opinions and speak out for justice and truth, but rather that we are so certain of our view of reality that we leave no room for “the other” in our hearts.
This is why I love the Prayer of Examen and other forms of contemplative prayer. The contemplative life demands we hold the tension in love as a form of prayer, both the tension inside us and around us. Contemplative prayer, particularly the Examen, trains us in this twin-noticing: We learn to notice unconscious underpinnings (both good and bad) humming within ourselves. At the same time, we learn to notice how God is present to us in these moments. Practiced habitually, we become a more self-aware and God-aware people. Slowly, our views of God, ourselves and others become less bent. We become more reflective (and less reactive) friends of God whose words and deeds mirror the unrelenting love of the One we spend so much time with.
How we pray impacts how we live in the world.
So, how do we overcome mind-blind prayer to engage with the holy, unpredictable, living God of love? In the last blog, we looked at the prayer of Examen and Ignatian Spirituality [Part 1]. Instructions for how to pray the Examen are there. In this blog, I’ll offer you more Ignatian insights that will enhance any devotional or prayer practice you have, including the Examen.
Ignatian Tip #1: Let God Look At You
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 said 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 this seems odd! But as I have adopted the practice, it has not only enlivened my prayer times, it has begun to change my daily life. Why does Ignatius insist on this pre-prayer practice? If we can move beyond our mind-blindness and be truly present to God, prayer should bring us before the One whose intimacy is beyond our control and whose thoughts and responses take us off guard and move us into Love. Jesuit Robert Marsh writes:
“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.”
Here are some practical steps to begin a prayer time by letting God look at you:
- Close your eyes and quiet your mind. Give yourself permission to be fully present for the next few minutes.
- Let God look at you. You might picture this or simply feel it. It’s an invitation to the God of love.
- 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.)
- 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 this God like?
- Offer this experience back to God in prayer and then continue on with your devotional or prayer time….
Can I discover myself in the eyes of God? Can I come to see myself the way God sees me—honestly and benevolently… caught in a gaze of love, and invited into companionship with Jesus?
Ignatian Tip #2 – Follow the Consolation
Ignatian consolation is a movement closer to God and desolation is the opposite. Much of my early prayer life was focused on my sin and weakness in hope of healing. Now that I’m older, I’ve found healing and transformation are more accessible if I shift my gaze to my loving heavenly Father and let Him convince me I am beloved.
Close your eyes and think of the last time you felt connected to God. Describe the experience in one or two words.
Often the answers I get to this question will be something like: lightness, clarity, warmth, hope or intimacy. This is the touch of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. Ignatius tells us that consolation “…touches the soul gently, lightly, and sweetly, like a drop of water going into a sponge…” whereas desolation “…touches her sharply with noise and disturbance, as when a drop of waterfalls on a stone.”
During our prayer times, our guidance and transformation will be found mostly by exploring the consolations of God in depth. There are times, like in counselling and addiction recovery, where exploring desolation is needed, but not so much in the Examen or other contemplative prayer practices. Just like the expression, “follow the light at the end of the tunnel,” we turn our faces toward the light, warmth, and comfort of God to find our way out of darkness. In this way, our view of God in relation to ourselves becomes a little less bent.
Ignatian Tip #3: Take Desire Seriously
I went to a Bible college that had the following six-inch rule: Males and females, at all times, were required to stay six inches apart. My Christian tradition was very wary of desire… all desires. Perhaps yours was too? For too long in the history of Western Christian spirituality, repression of unwanted feelings, impulses, thoughts, and desires was taught as the preferred method toward spiritual growth. The result of this thinking has been believers who have repressed and twisted inner worlds, rather than transformed ones.
“What we don’t transform, we transmit.” – Richard Rohr
For Ignatius, noticing our desires is an essential part of journeying with God. We are ever-desiring creatures. Our desires, moods, and thoughts shift and move like ocean waves all day long. We need to learn to notice these ‘shiftings’ inside us and take them to God in prayer.
If you are still reading this article, you are probably at a place in your faith journey where discerning between right and wrong is mostly automatic. That character has already been developed. However, as we mature in Christ, we are usually trying to discern between what is good and better. Author Margaret Blackie says it best when she writes:
“We cannot possibly think that we will be able to discover what God truly desires for us if we do not take the time to get to know ourselves, to allow our desires to make themselves known.” – Margaret Blackie
But what if our desires are for vengeance or for a prettier kitchen? Theologian James Allison encourages us to even take our “dirty, little smelly desires” to God in prayer. He writes:
“It would appear that ‘Your Father who sees in secret’, doesn’t despise our smelly little desires, and in fact, suggests that if we can only hold onto them, and insist on articulating them, then we will find for ourselves, over time, that we want more than those desires, that we really do want something good with a passion. In other words, God takes us seriously in our weakness and unimportance, even when we don’t.”
The Prayer of Examen is a perfect tool for desire-sifting and desire-unbending. As we air our superficial desires out before God and ourselves, our deeper desires become apparent. Our need for our hurt to be seen and tended to by the Spirit might arise. Or, our desire to forgive… after all. Maybe, your dream to host and serve others isn’t insignificant after all, but rather a part of your God-given design.
“God is on the inside of the deep longing.” – Maria Boulding
God has a dream for you and for this world. He longs to grow us up into His adult friends, whose desires are in the process of transformation and whose views of reality are becoming less bent. This is not only for our personal freedom, but for the sake of our world.
How you pray can train how you live.
“This is how you pray continually, not by offering prayer in words, but by joining yourself to God through your whole way of life, so that your life becomes the continuous and uninterrupted prayer.” – St. Basil the Great
- Article: Looking At God Looking At You by Robert R. Marsh, SJ,
- Changed Heart, Changed World: The Transforming Freedom of Friendship with God by William Barry, SJ
- Rooted in Love: Integrating Ignatian Spirituality into daily life by Margaret Blackie
- The Examen: How I Can Pray
- Pray As You Go Website or Pray As You Go App (Click on Retreats and Series in their drop-down menu to find it.)