our default setting

Nov 29, 2020

There is a story told of the holy French priest Jean Vianney (Ćure d’Ars d.1859). He noticed an elderly man who would spend hours in the church before the Blessed Sacrament.

The ćure was curious about what happened in this man’s prayer. ‘What do you do when you are praying” he asked the man. The old man’s answer has become the classic instruction for contemplative prayer: “I look at Him, and He looks at me.”

The simplicity of the man’s prayer is deeply appealing. So much that is taught and written about prayer serves only to convince us that prayer is a complex project to be mastered.

We forget that prayer is the most natural human activity. Prayer is the ‘default-setting’ for humans. Prayer is always God’s action in us.

Our desire for the divine life within us is the purest prayer we can pray. To sit in silence and stillness before God is the best we can do.

When I think about the ćure’s conversation with the elderly man, I see that he was deeply at home with God; much more at peace with God than I often am. Most times I feel unable to look at God. My guilt and shame renders me more like Adam in the garden who took to cover, unable to return the divine gaze.

But there is hope for me. God does not need me to do anything in my prayer. I simply give God the gift of time, and I sit or kneel. If looking at God is difficult for whatever reason, I need not be concerned. In these moments I simply know that however preoccupied my own vision, God is always looking at me with gentle love and mercy.

God’s gaze on me is the heart of prayer. God does all the work—and I am transformed.

The busyness of pre-Christmas days can be exhausting. How easy it is for us to lose perspective. We forget that God is holding us in love in every moment.

These Advent days invite us to set moments in the midst of our full lives to remember that God is with us. To know that we are held firmly in God’s vision is the most comforting human experience. In this gaze we see our sin and weakness. In humble shame we cast our eyes downward. But the God of love continues to look upon us with transforming love. This posture before God is the heart of contemplative prayer.


You might like to:

  • take a moment to recall the word or phrase from the above reflection that most encouraged you.
  • share a comment offering your own thought or reflection. Many people comment that they are encouraged by what others share on these pages. Thanks for the great response in comments yesterday providing inspiration for many.
  • send the initials of those you would like FFF readers to remember in prayer to john@fff.org.nz


  1. No matter how old I grow, prayer always reminds me I am still God’s child, bumbling along, learning, growing and loved. Prayer is the core of my day bringing peace, forgiveness and hope. Julie

  2. Prayer is that moment of conscious ‘ stillness ’ to acknowledge God.

  3. Romans 8:26-27 is a passage about prayer that I find very encouraging.
    The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that never could be put into words, and God who knows everything in our hearts knows perfectly what he means, and that the pleas of the saints expressed by the Spirit are according to the mind of God,

  4. As I read your thought this morning Father I was at the skate park watching my 6 year old challenge himself. I was there and watching him not commenting but letting him explore and every now and then he would look towards me and say did you see mum. This made me think is that what it is like for God watching us, waiting with love.

  5. Fr John this sums up prayer beautifully – simple & earnest

  6. I love your comparison, Tabitha.

  7. Thank you for your thoughts on prayer. Wonderful encouragement for these busy weeks before Christmas.I take great consolation that the Spirit is praying within me when in times prayer seems dry and difficult. So thank you.

  8. When I was a child I was encouraged to memorize the meaning of ‘prayer’ as recorded in the Catholic Catechism – “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God” … the definition left an indelible impression on my mind.
    My understanding today is summarized in the following mnemonic:
    P Peace
    R Relationship
    A Adoration
    Y Yearning
    E Everlasting
    R Redemptive
    Julie’s poignant reflection this morning mirrored my sentiment,
    “I am still a child bumbling along, learning, growing and loved.
    Prayer is the core of my day bringing peace, forgiveness and hope”.

  9. Thanks John, for your thoughts on prayer. It goes along with my way of thinking especially dealing with different denominations. Educated up and growing up my prayers were structured unless begging for something. A very holy man, a priest and relation told me, once he was asked ‘how much time do you spend praying’ I can understand this question as he spent an hour in such a relaxed stated he appeared to be asleep, his body could have been jelly. His answer was “one minute and fifty nine minutes trying to pray”. When observed it was understandable to think he was asleep but never failed to be alert with a few minutes of Mass starting.

  10. Sincere thank you for simple explanation on Prayer…..Be Still and Know that I am God…..

  11. Find long periods in prayer leave me distracted. So for me, Short prayer times during the day help me to remained focussed on Our Lord.

  12. To sit and be silent with the Lord is an amazing experience. Just being there. He is.

  13. I love this. So often when I pray I feel as I have to keep ‘talking’. The old mans comments have really resonated with me and perhaps I will try just being with God.
    Thank you John.

  14. I loved this and it reminded me of St Theres’s quote: For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.

  15. Ditto to Justine’s words! Thank you John for opening the world of prayer to someone who has always struggled with knowing if it was right or not.

  16. Dearest Fr John,
    I am reminded of what the Lord says, be still and know that I am your God. Its helps a lot. Please pray for me.
    Praying for you too,

  17. Heard the quote many years back & at times do the same, just sit there. God looks at me & me at Him. I look at Jesus, on the cross, crucified, knowing He did so for my sins.
    Love reading the comments to find others struggle with their prayer life too. Start praying, then find my thoughts are miles away at times, till perhaps God gives me a nudge to get back on the straight & narrow path.


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