Prayer brings us before God, but does he receive us with a gaze or a glare? Barbara Sampson discovers that prayer can teach us to know ourselves in the same way that God knows us.
Every day on his way home from the fields a peasant farmer stops by the village church, goes inside and sits, just sits. Day after day the priest watches him then one day asks, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Nothing,’ says the farmer. ‘I’m just gazing on God as he gazes on me and we are telling each other that we love each other.’
Gaze, glimpse, glance, glare—they all sound much the same, all ways of looking at someone or something. But they are all very different—when we think about a mother’s gaze upon her newborn, or a glare from a parent at a naughty seven-year-old, or a glimpse or glance with which you spot someone through the window of a moving train.
Many people grow up thinking that God, if he even spares us a glimpse or a glance at all, most often glares at us. After all, he is the all-seeing God, taking note of our every fault and failure. The only way to cope with such an ever-watching deity is to be constantly on one’s best behaviour, hoping like crazy when we do make a mistake that he was busy watching someone else at that very moment.
This all makes for a sad, but very real theology for many people. The God who Sees—Hagar’s wonderful revelation of El Roi (Genesis 16:13)—can be a fearsome figure who stands over us in a threatening way, not unlike our first headmaster at primary school.
How liberating to discover that the look with which God looks upon us is not a glare, nor even just a passing glance or a glimpse, but a gaze. How differently these words express how God holds us in his love.
To gaze on something—whether a sunset or a beautiful work of art or a special person—is to appreciate, to admire and to wonder. The word gaze is the look of a lover, the kind of word we find in the Song of Solomon. ‘How beautiful you are, my beloved. I gaze upon you and want you to know how much I love you.’ (My rough translation).
The great Christian author Henri Nouwen—who spent his life writing, travelling, teaching, helping people to understand the heart of God—spoke of two voices that competed for his attention right throughout his life. One voice kept urging him, ‘Go there, teach this, write that, show them how smart you are’. The other voice kept inviting him to, ‘Come, sit in this chair that has your name written on it—you are my beloved’. Nouwen confessed it was only in the final decade of his life that he really listened to that second voice. Only then did he fully understand the greatness of God’s love and allow himself to be held in a gaze of belovedness and welcome.
When the rich young ruler turned away from Jesus, the gospel writer says that Jesus looked on him with love (Mark 10:21). That’s what a gaze is—often a mingling of love, sorrow
What is prayer like in this place of being gazed upon? It is often wordless, a prayer from the inside, a prayer that needs no explanation or apology or analysis. Just a longing to be held in that loving presence. And that kind of prayer is enough.
Let me see beyond the surface
live deeply all my days
may I pause and linger gently
held in your loving gaze.
‘I don’t know who or what put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer ‘Yes’ to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal,’ wrote Dag Hammarskjöld, in his book Markings.
It seems to me that one of the basic tasks of getting older is to explore and discover who you are and to live from that place of knowing. So much of one’s early life is taken up with growing physically and becoming an individual, building one’s life of relationships, vocation and purpose.
At some point the challenge comes: But who am I really? Sickness may throw this question at us. A sudden change, a devastating loss, an unexpected death, can all be ways of making us face the deep inner issues. Author and surgeon Atul Gawande says the questions for him are: ‘What is important to me?’ and ‘What do I value?’ Great questions, they go to the very heart of every matter.
Poet Mary Oliver wrote:
Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful
fire! More room in your heart for love,
for the trees! For the birds who own
nothing—the reason they can fly.
For myself, the journey to get to a place of answering the questions of who I am and what is important, has not been a straight line. I recall the year my husband and I took a group of cadets to a corps where we had been the corps officers just a few years earlier. It was great to go back, but this time, rather than this being ‘my’ platform, I sat and watched vibrant young officers-in-training as they took centre stage.
That same year, my son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first baby. It seemed no time since I was a young mother myself. Now suddenly I was on the side, watching, observing, encouraging—an altogether different role with quite a different perspective.
In recent weeks, that first baby—my oldest grandson—has married. The side from which I observe life has stretched out even further. As much as I long to be in the heart of the action, the reality is that I am not. So how do I find a place that still has something to offer to that heart? What has become important to me at this stage of my life? What is it that I value more than anything?
While the questions are clear, the answers are tinged with mystery. My vocation (literally ‘calling’) now has to do with prayer and with presence—being in a place where God can use me to offer blessing to others. Prayer is so often hidden, unseen, offered in the secret place, as Jesus advised (Matthew 6:6).
In a world of smart phones and watches, what is S.M.A.R.T. about prayer? What difference can it possibly make? Surely nothing much. But prayer is like a drop of water offered to a drooping flower or a thirsty pilgrim. And somewhere along the way, prayer soaks into the very pores of the one who prays.
I want to live a prayer-soaked life
let loose with love
cracked open with compassion
walking the earth with humility
dancing with delight at being called
‘Beloved’, ‘child of God’, ‘daughter of the King’,
‘apple of God’s eye’, ‘precious treasure’ …
spilling your light
wherever I go
By Barbara Sampson (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 18 May 2019, p20-21 - You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.