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Encountering the ‘Other’ in Prayer and Communal Discernment

By Fr Peter McIsaac SJ

Fr Carlo Carretto, a spiritual master of the Little Brothers of Jesus, said: “Contemplation is the art of being watched by God.”

Fr Peter McIsaac SJ

For two decades, I have pondered this definition. I suspect that the English may have some unfortunate connotations. I think that “being watched by” could be more meaningfully replaced by “being gazed upon”.

It is beautiful. I have in mind an image of a woman gazing upon her baby. Beyond thought, emotion or even desire (although all might be engaged here), there is presence and connection. There is love.

Yet beneath the obvious beauty of his description of contemplation, Carretto offers a spiritual insight that every great mystic has in one way or another underscored: the union with God (for which we are all created, according to the Carmelite Abbess, Sr Ruth Burrows) is not the result of a mechanical process or method, nor the fruit merely of our own labour.

God alone accomplishes contemplative union within us. Our methods, our spiritual practices, and our desires provide a disposition and occasion for the moment of union. They bring us to the threshold (cf Fr Andre Brou SJ). But God alone carries us across.

Fr Robert Marsh SJ asks the next important question: that is, “How does God gaze upon us?” Drawing on St Ignatius of Loyola’s advice that we take a bit of time before every prayer exercise to be aware of this gaze—as well as its character—Fr Marsh explores the spiritual awakening in which I encounter God as an ‘Other’.

It is a process of maturation in which I move beyond myself to an Other who is “not me,” and who has feelings, thoughts, and desires other than my own. It is a release from what he calls “spiritual autism”.

Awakening in this way is itself a moment of grace. We can miss the opportunity by entering prayer in a self-preoccupied way: in which case, I become trapped, in a sense, in the “prayer” that is really, as Fr Marsh suggests, either me talking to myself; or me talking about God (which can be very theologically satisfying).

In truth, though, I am trapped within myself, and unable to encounter the ‘Other’ as He is, but only what I imagine, or anticipate, or think He should be.

This question that Fr Marsh raises, is very important in spiritual direction. Apart from good listening skills (which may be employed in a wide group of disciplines), he suggests that the way that a director asks questions is vital, but he admits that for many years, he “…rarely asked the kinds of questions that got people in touch with the real living God of their experience; instead, [he] was satisfied with getting them to reflect on their own experience.”

The spiritual director helps the person to discern, articulate and deepen the encounter. St Ignatius warns directors, however, not to interfere in the encounter, always aware that he/she is not the principal agent.

The director does not make the encounter happen with brilliant insight, or mechanical processes, or models of self-awareness. As a director, I am consistently surprised by the spontaneous and unexpected grace that the directee allows me to participate in through their sharing.

I encounter God through the spiritual conversation. I am praying, discerning, uniting myself to the person in their encounter.

The danger, of course, is that when I become satisfied with getting directees merely to reflect on themselves and their own experience, I may, in fact, lead the person to a kind of self-absorption that is not only an obstacle to genuine encounter, but which can lead to a form of desolation (even if the person experiences a momentary gratification).

Self-awareness is not self-absorption. If I lead the directee to excessive self-analysis, I can exacerbate the “spiritual autism” that traps the person within him/herself, perhaps even helping to cultivate a disposition that blinds the person to the loving presence of God, who is ‘Other’.