Caught in the Gaze of Prayer – Br. Jim Woodrum

John 17:1-11a

After the death of my parents, I had to settle their estate and then prepare the house that I grew up in to sell. Among the almost five decades of memories were photo albums assembled through the years. In one of these albums is a picture of my Mom and me when I was an infant. She was in her nightgown, her hair in curlers, sitting in a rocking chair holding me. She was lovingly looking down at me and I was gazing up at her, our eyes locked while I sucked on my pacifier. I imagine my Dad seeing the opportunity for the iconic shot and carefully reaching for his camera. It is a picture we have all seen in the many photo albums of our lives or even while walking in the park, eating in a restaurant, or visiting family. The mother gazes at the infant with a gentle outpouring of love, comfort, and safety. The infant returns the gaze, looking up into the eyes of its mother, taking in information, studying her face, expressions, and eyes. This gaze of love is so compelling, you cannot help but to get drawn in. Even though you were too young to remember this interchange, somehow you hold it sacramentally in embodied remembrance.

It was this kind of gaze that came to mind when reading these words in a small book published by our Society called A Cowley Calendar which has a quote of our founder Fr. Benson for each day of the year. On the page marked “Tuesday in the Octave of Ascension” there is this quote: “We must realize that His eye is really upon us. We must therefore rest in the knowledge that He is looking on us. He gazes into our hearts, He knows all the thoughts that are there. He watches when perhaps Satan assaults us with manifold evil thoughts. He encourages us to be strong, to keep ourselves continually gazing upon Him; and if we will only live in His love, then no power of the enemy can tear us away.”[i] In our lection this evening from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus pray to his Father for his disciples in loving intercession. As he begins to pray, the author of John says that Jesus looks up toward heaven. Its almost as if Jesus returns the gaze of his father as he prays about his coming glorification on the cross and then for protection for his disciples.

Prayer, which we view as communication with God, is a mystery. For many, it can be difficult because it does not resemble how we communicate with others in a clear language. When attempting to talk to God we often feel silly talking into the air or self-conscious about what to say and how to speak. We know this to be true because there are so many books written on methods of prayer as well as websites teaching prayer in four easy steps. Even we brothers dedicated our Lenten offering this year to teaching ways to pray while separated from our communities of worship. We are often discouraged that others seem to have great success in prayer when we feel that the words of our prayer are ‘lost in translation.’

But I believe that Fr. Benson is on to something when he speaks this way of what was coined in Victorian times as “mental prayer.” Prayer is more than often a response to what God is communicating to us. Like an infant with its mother, this gazing communicates a message of love that transcends the boundaries of language. Fr. Benson says that all we have to do is ‘to keep ourselves continually gazing upon Him,’ returning his gaze that is assuring us of His love, comforting us and calming our fear, assuring us of his presence even in the face of all that trouble us.

How do you pray during these times of isolation? How are you assured of God’s presence in these troubled times? Are the boundaries of language getting in your way? It may be helpful for you to think of prayer in terms of returning God’s adoring gaze at you.  If it is helpful close your eyes and open your heart and offer up your fear, loneliness, anger, sadness, and even any joy you have experienced when receiving a phone call, a letter, or a text from someone close to you. God already knows but wants you to share in affirmation and through the recognition of the awareness of God’s presence. It is out of this mutual adoration that you begin to learn to speak with God discovering the authentic language and inflections that God is speaking to you. Let us pray: Eternal Spirit of the living Christ, I know not how to ask or what to say; I only know my need, as deep as life, and only you can teach me how to pray. Come, pray in me the prayer I need this day; help me to see your purpose and your will—where I have failed, what I have done amiss; held in forgiving love, let me be still. Come with the vision and the strength I need to serve my God, and all humanity; fulfillment of my life in love outpoured—my life in you, O Christ, your love in me.[ii]  Amen.

[i] Benson, Richard Meux. A Cowley Calendar. London: Mowbrays, 1932. Print.

[ii] Hymnal 1982, Number 698 Eternal Spirit of the living Christ; Words: Frank von Christierson

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