Looking through contemplative prayer

Sunday, November 19, 2017

By Mia Pohlman

Prayer is looking.

In a small village somewhere in France, a parish priest named John Vianney goes about his day, bustling in and out of the church to meet with parishioners, hear confessions, grab some papers he forgot in the sacristy. It's the 1800s and he's not a saint yet. Each time he passes the altar and makes the sign of the cross, he notices a man who is a peasant sitting in the second pew, off to the side, staring at Jesus in the form of the circular piece of bread displayed on the altar. As the sun sets and John is about to go home, he decides to ask the man what he's been wondering:

"What is it you've been doing all day, Sir, sitting here?"

The priest observes the lines in the man's weathered skin as the peasant raises his blue, clear eyes to him, and says simply, gesturing toward the altar: "He looks at me and I look back."

I love this anecdote. It reminds me that contemplative prayer is as simple as being in the presence of Jesus, adoring him just by looking at him in amazement and letting him look back at me, seeing me for all I am. When I am weary, I can come as I am and present myself in my exhaustion, simply sitting in the Lord's presence, quietly, and let the Lord be quiet with me, too.

An online dictionary defines contemplation as "looking thoughtfully for a long time at something." The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, writing in the 1950s and early 1960s, stated in his reflection "What is Contemplation?" In "New Seeds of Contemplation," that contemplation is "spiritual wonder" given to us by God as a gift. It is an inexpressible experience of God, "a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source." It is "awareness of the reality of that source. It knows the source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith." Contemplation, Merton writes, is our response to the question God asked when God created us, and at the same time it is the question, too, because "the question is, itself, the answer." The first step to receiving this gift is showing up.

So, here we are. And, oh, it's you. Be the sun that bakes the dirt of our souls into clay, be the wind that sweeps the loose grains away, be the first drops of rain on the dry soil of our souls; or, let our being remind us that we are provided for, that we can trust, that this quiet and presence is enough.

Please. Look at us, and let us look at you.

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