There is a story told of the holy French priest Jean Vianney whose feast we celebrate today (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.
While the ultimate in our relationship with God is experienced when we are able to return the loving and merciful gaze of God, the life-giving fact is that even when our gaze is averted or occupied elsewhere, our knowledge that God is gazing at us with love is enough to soothe our aching hearts.
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.
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.