“How do you, Lord, look at me?
What do you feel in your heart for me?”
—John Eagan, SJ (from Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits)
As Christians, most of us desire to cultivate the capacity to love others well. We also have a deep desire to be loved, known, and seen as we really are. A simple practice that St. Ignatius Loyola encourages before prayer in the Spiritual Exercises is to begin by placing yourself in the Lord’s presence, considering God’s care for you. One way is to imagine the Lord’s gaze of love. Although for Ignatius, this moment is preparatory to prayer, I have also found that an entire prayer period in which this moment becomes the whole of prayer is also beneficial.
(I also discovered that this practice has parallels with a form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. My colleague John Makransky’s book, Awakening Through Love [Wisdom Publications, 2007], has greatly helped to deepen and to shape my prayer practice, as described below, and I am deeply grateful to him.)
Sit comfortably to pray either in a chair or cross-legged, depending on which is most comfortable to keep a straight back and ease of posture. Then, simply imagine God’s gaze resting upon you with love. Sometimes I imagine the physical Jesus looking at me, his eyes resting on me with love, acceptance, and understanding. At other times, I allow the feeling associated with the Lord’s loving presence from prior prayer experiences to wash over me, like a warm and gentle breeze, sunlight, or the embrace of a loving friend. Perhaps you have another way of imagining God’s loving presence that is familiar: remembering a loving family member or friend who has enacted the love of Christ for you. Rest in this gaze and embrace of Love, and let go of all other distractions. Allow yourself to rest in and to be warmed by its enveloping presence.
Recollecting God’s love through other people in our lives who have loved us is very useful in this form of prayer. The care of family members, friends, mentors, spiritual companions, or others still shines its light upon us, and continues to embrace us because all love is rooted in Christ. As the Gospel of John phrases it, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (John 15:5).
When I first experienced this kind of prayer more spontaneously, I was praying for the wellbeing of a particular spiritual friend who had mentored and cared for me with great kindness over many years. As I did so, I began to feel connected not only to my friend’s caring heart, but also more broadly to the overflowing Love that is the very heart of Christ. My grandfather was also a profoundly loving presence. Although he passed on years ago, my belief that he is still loving me from heaven allows me to connect more deeply to the divine Love that embraces us all. Slowly, I am learning to see the plenitude of God’s love known through many people. We can imagine Christ and his many friends, whether alive or with the saints, who stand near him and look at us with love along with the Lord.
Praying in this way, we can discover that the same love that we have received as a gift is also within ourselves, a gift of the Holy Spirit given to each one of us. Whenever we love others, we draw on this interior well of love, one that waters our own souls and others. Over time, we can grow to experience a deeper sense of the unity between God, self, and others, beginning with this simple act of resting in the gaze and embrace of the Lord and his friends.