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April 25, 2024


Q: Archbishop J, why—with all our prayer—are we not moving more steadily toward discipleship?

In a classic article, ‘Looking at God Looking at You’, author Robert R Marsh illumines a critical flaw often found in spirituality today. Using the Ignatian Additional Directions, formulated to help the person in prayer, he reflects on our mind-blindness. St Ignatius’ third Additional Direction states:

A step or two in front of the place where I am to contemplate or meditate, I will stand for the length of an Our Father, raising my mind above and considering how God our Lord is looking at me, etc., and make an act of reverence or humility. (The Exercises 75.3)

In Marsh’s opinion, modern Christians are mind-blind. Children up to the age of four begin life mind-blind. They “cannot handle the idea that other people have other minds with independent content.” Some children, he says, “never understand that someone else is a person like themselves, with independent knowledge, intentions and feelings.”

Marsh’s thesis is that the modern Christian does not see or relate to God as a person with independent thoughts, feelings, moods, or character. Thus, rather than pray to encounter the Other, we engage only our thoughts or ideas about God, but not God in totality.

Therefore, he says: “… this internal rehearsal of my experience tends to swing between two modes of speech: either I talk to myself, or I talk to my idea of God. Of course, it is not all talking—I operate in quieter ways too, through a kind of interior looking, or just sitting” (21).

He continues:

On the odd occasion when I get beyond this blindness, I still approach God’s point of view abstractly. I wonder what kind of thing God ought to see or feel or believe, rather than trying to discover what God is actually seeing, feeling and believing. I am concerned with what God would say rather than with what God does say. And even when I expect more, even when my heart has been opened to the possibility that God might appear in my prayer as a real person with real feelings, desires and needs – even then … following through is a struggle. (22)

Without an encounter with the living God, who is not a projection of my mind or subject to it, we cannot move through the three conversions we have been discussing: obedience to Jesus, sensus fidei and co-responsibility.

This is a poverty of modern Christianity. It is why so many end up in Pelagianism–the heresy that we can pull ourselves up by the bootstrap. If we cannot allow God—the wholly Other—in, can we allow our brother and sister into our hearts?


Synodality’s challenge

Synodality requires a capacity to be open to the “otherness” of God and humans. Openness on either level opens us on both levels. It is not just that we are mind-blind to God; we are mind-blind and deaf to the other—to the one who looks and thinks differently to me. Look at the divisiveness that is becoming a chasm. Synodality is the cure for the ailment that modern culture faces. Without God breaking in, we will not open our hearts to listen actively to others in the Church; we will not move to synodality.

Ignatius is inviting us to move beyond our mind, ego, projections of God, and God-constructs. The invitation is to open ourselves to encounter the living God on God’s terms.

I love the concept of God’s gaze on me as I am gazing on God. I keep an icon of the Trinity on the altar in my chapel while I pray. It is a constant reminder that it is not simply me who is gazing on God but also God gazing upon me.

Pope Francis speaks about the many times Jesus gazes on a person and the different meanings and nuances that gaze holds. At the heart of contemplation is my conscious awareness that the activity is not only about my gazing at God but also about God gazing at me and my readiness to enter into conversation with the living God.

This is vital. It is also unnerving and requires giving up control. When God rolls into our prayer, it is sudden, uncontrollable, and huge in emotional depth. The same is true when God is in the synodal process, and the Holy Spirit opens a new perspective.

So, contemplation is reflexive and, thus, healing. We go from I, my experience of the prayer; to You, my experience of God gazing on me; to ‘We’, God and myself as two persons with different personalities, sharing a common experience. This is the Conversation in the Spirit journey—I, You, We.

So, prayer is the capacity to allow God to break through our deafness and blindness and draw us to see and hear His perspective. It is the capacity to receive God’s perspective and make a home for it and, ultimately, for God in the soul. This requires docility to the Other and openness to the little and the least.

True contemplation always takes us outside ourselves to the infinite, where we truly find ourselves. But it is death to our ego, that false sense of self to which we have become addicted.

So, here is the choice: we can continue clinging to our false sense of self and our projection of God and remain as we are, fortifying ourselves against the living God and other persons. Or we can beg God for the grace we need to allow God—in all God’s uniqueness and quirkiness—to be God and to reorient our entire existence as God sees fit.

This is not only for the big moments of our prayer. This is supposed to be how we experience the “everydayness” of our prayer and our relationship with God. I can recount many times, in big moments and in everyday prayer, when God broke through my blindness and deafness and spoke with clarity against my “better” judgement.

Each time was challenging, yet rewarding; upsetting, yet there was genuine peace. Also, in Conversation in the Spirit, an odd perspective often refocused the group and aided discernment.

I leave you with the words of St Augustine on this matter. Contemplate them the next time you sit to pray:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace. (St Augustine of Hippo)

Marsh, Robert R. “Looking at God Looking at You.” The Way, Oct 2004,