Lord, I’m tired, worn out and if i’m honest, a little scared. There seems to be so much you are calling me into–it looks like too much for me to handle. But I can’t deny you’ve given it to me. It’s huge and awkward, like an over-sized beach ball, but it’s not heavy. In my quiet moments, I marvel at what you’ve entrusted to me. But today is not a quiet moment. Today I am feeling the chaos of to-do lists, detailed emails, articles to type, jobs to quote, family to attend to. I’m not able to make myself present to you. Would you, in your grace, dear Lord, make yourself present to me? Calm my flighty heart and speak peace to my whirling thoughts. Speak to the little fear, and give me greater love. Let me attend to you as you tend me and embrace your quiet and compassionate presence so that the works of my hands would be strengthened to do your will. Amen.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.
–Words & Music: Helen H. Lemmel, 1922
I admit it. When this particular spiritual practice was first explained to me, I thought it was a joke. Its potential for weirdness is such that you don’t find it in anthologies of spiritual disciplines. But I’ve been practicing it lately and I’m finding it helpful, so I thought I’d introduce you to it. What is it, you ask?
Gazing into the eyes of Jesus.
Yes, I know. I feel your inward cringe. I am all that and I thought this was a really stupid idea, but several things convinced me otherwise.
First, I have a long history of avoiding eye contact and at various points in my life have worked to improve that, first in high school, then later in my single era when I was doing a lot of social dancing. Even without a spiritual angle, I’ve had a sense that improving eye contact with others would help me relate better in social situations.
Second, my own spiritual director has delved into much of the science behind Immanuel Prayer practices, including gazing. At a retreat a couple of years ago she had us practice gazing into the eyes of another retreat participant, explaining how this helps activate and build the relational circuits in the brain. (This article summarizes some of the current understandings about how eye contact affects our brains.)
Thirdly, I’ve long had a picture of Christ standing beside me on the rocks near my childhood home in Maine. Recently, he moved to stand in front of me–and I realized I was having a hard time looking into his eyes!
Think about your most beloved friends, family, spouse. What happens when you gaze into their eyes? Sometimes it brings shame–we have wronged them and we need to make amends. We cannot hold their gaze. But when all is right in our relationship with them, we gaze into their eyes and our love for them grows, simply by looking into their eyes and seeing the love they have for us.
My husband John and I were recently at the Bristol Renaissance Faire when we were accosted by a wandering minstrel. The bard sang a song of the lovely maid, whose cheeks were fair, whose hair was red (in this case, artificially), whose hands were shapely and eyes like brown pools, He kept directing us to be looking into each other’s eyes and prompting John to admire whatever it was that he (the bard) was taking note of at the time. I have often had a sense of my love for John as a steel rod, strong and resilient within me, but after the song it was as though the love had flesh on it, which, I grant you, is important for us human beings.
I often forget that Jesus is flesh and blood just like me, that he is the bridegroom and in some mysterious way all of us–the church–are his bride. He does woo us to him and it is appropriate to think of that with eye contact attached!
How can you practice gazing? I am a beginner, but here are some suggestions:
- Find a comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted.
- Do you have a favorite scripture passage, image or icon of Christ that helps you to feel loved by him? Spend some time meditating on that. You can also remember something recent that you appreciate and express that appreciation to him.
- Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Imagine him standing in front of you and look into his eyes. Notice what comes up for you. Can you hold his gaze? When you look away, why is that? What is his facial expression like? Why do you think that it is so?
- If you keep turning away from Jesus or his expression is disapproving, ask yourself if there is some unconfessed sin or reason you cannot hold his case. Have a conversation with him about it if you need to.
- Sometimes it is easier for us to run into Jesus’ arms rather than gaze into his eyes. That is certainly OK!
- As your time is drawing to a close, talk to Jesus about that. Let the time close gently.
- Make plans to meet again.
Sometimes you just don’t know how to move from where you are spiritually back into a place of knowing God’s presence. When that happens to me, it’s a perfect place to look for God’s grace in operation, at least in hindsight. Here’s today’s example from real life:
Last week I made a mistake about who was preaching at church and posted my incorrect information on our Facebook page. This led to 3 correcting emails from our rector, none of which I received because I was busy “recuperating” on Saturday and just didn’t bother to check email. On Sunday, someone came to church almost an hour late because they found a notice that our services were in Simmons Gymnasium rather than the Kemper Center Chapel. Guess who’s in charge of fixing this on our website? These little irritations coast me into yesterday morning where I once again have to repeat that I am not in charge of insurance for the church and do not have the time to add that to my “to do” list.
All of these things put me in a foul mood that I just couldn’t shake. Why? Because I am embarrassed by my failure to be efficient, all-knowing, organized, and definite about my boundaries.
The recognition of this embarrassment was helpful for my wee brain, but it did not actually help me feel less embarrassed at my human limitations and imperfections. What I found instead was that it connected to something deep within me that was wordless and undefined–the foul mood was not just the embarrassment, but something in my human condition that is disordered and not in God’s image. The nameless thing became a prayer, a longing or desire of some kind that I directed to God with the occasional verbalized prayer of “You’re going to have to fix this, Lord. I’ve got nothing to go on here.”
Today I woke up still in a dark mood, found my way to my computer and began work. I hear a story about a woman locked by her niece in her room until she died. Her family knew, but did not address the problem. I hear a story about African slaves who were sent to a prison for the smallest of infractions, then tortured and killed there. These dark stories, rather than depressing me further, actually cause my heart to thaw; I send up prayers for the souls of these falsely imprisoned people. After lunch, I take Roxie for a walk in the park, where we meet a dozen children and a Lab who all want to pet her. These everyday interactions cause me to smile, laugh and shrug off more of the darkness I’ve been feeling. As I turn towards home after talking with Ronnie, the park’s gardener, my heart is singing and I realize I’m back in God’s presence–and God himself brought me here.
Can’t find your way into God’s presence? Pray that he will lead you back and that you will recognize when you’ve arrived.
Lord, I thank you for your grace that untangles me from the places I get myself stuck in that are far from you. Keep me close to you always, lead me back quickly when I aimlessly wander away, teach me to be human and loving rather than super-human and efficient. Amen.
Breath prayer is a simple way to practice the presence of God. It can be used as a regular spiritual discipline or to work towards the goal of “praying without ceasing” (I Thess 5:17). It’s a great way to learn to rest in God’s presence, to learn let go of compulsive management of your prayer time and to give God the opportunity to do some unexpected work within you. If you need to practice surrender as a discipline, this could be a good practice for you.
To begin, find a comfortable place and position to sit or lie down in. As with the deep breathing exercise, you might want to set a non-intrusive timer for 5 or 10 minutes if you find that helpful.
Choose one of these short prayers or lines of scripture that resonates with you as your breath prayer.
- Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. | Lord, have mercy. | Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.*
- O Lord, make haste to help us.
- Whenever I am afraid I will trust in you.
- I am God’s beloved child.
- Be still and know that I am God.
- Nothing can separate me from the love of Jesus.
- Make up your own based on a verse that has been sticking with you lately.
Inhale slowly and say the first part of the prayer and on the exhale, say the second part. For example:
Inhale: Whenever I am afraid,
Exhale: I will trust in you.
Continue breathing and praying. Pause if you need to breath regularly, but remain quiet and in a prayerful frame of mind. If you find your mind wandering, release the thought to God without beating yourself up about it, and concentrate on your breathing.
After your time is completed, take a moment to reflect on how you feel now as opposed to when you started. Did God make anything apparent to you in this time? You may wish to note it or thank God for it before continuing on in your day.
Other Ways to Practice Breath Prayer
Breath prayer has the benefit of being a flexible discipline and one you can do with only part of your brain, which means you can use it while engaged in tedious tasks, such as your commute, cleaning the house, walking the dog, changing a diaper, opening your stack of mail, etc., etc., etc, I would suggest that as you begin, you make sure you get a 5-10 minute window of time each day; it will act as a foundation for building times of prayer into regular life.
Other Resources on Breath Prayer
*One of my favorite books is The Way of the Pilgrim. I have this edition, but there are many good translations available. This book has much to do with the popularity of The Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner). It is written as a folk tale and illustrates the way one moves from the discipline of that prayer into prayer without ceasing. It is delightful, and I don’t often use that word.
(As I was searching for an image, I discovered this book review, which should give you a good idea of the flavor of the story. The reviewer also freely discusses some things about the whole concept that she’s wrestling with, so if you’re wrestling with “what’s the point of this kind of prayer?” you might find it helpful.)
The blog Ten Ways to Pray has an article on breath prayer that includes the use of prayer beads in a more structured form of this prayer. If you’re a sacramentalist, you may find this method helpful.
Evangelical? Cooperative Baptist Fellowship page on Breath Prayer
There’s not much we do as thoughtlessly as breathing. We should thank God for that. Can you imagine concentrating on something so hard that you forget to breathe and find yourself passed out on the floor–or worse? Unlike our heart rate, all of us have some control over our breathing. When we regulate our breathing we can convince our bodies to calm down and let go of accumulated stresses. How often have you been coached “just take a deep breath” in the middle of a stressful situation? Something as simple as inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly has a direct affect on our physical bodies and can also have a calming affect on our minds.
To me, I can see at least 2 spiritual practices that pertain to breathing. The first is a simple awareness of the stresses your body is carrying around and releasing those to Jesus. The second is actually imagining God’s presence coming to you through your breathing in a practice called “breath prayers.” Today we’ll practice the awareness piece.
Find a comfortable place and position for yourself, seated or lying down, it doesn’t really matter. Set aside 5-10 minutes for this practice. If you get easily distracted by wondering how much time has passed, set a timer–although try to make it a gentle chime rather than a disruptive buzz.
With a hand on your abdomen, take a deep breath through your nose. Try to fill your lungs to their capacity–you should push your hand out in front of you.
Now, exhale slowly through your mouth. Try to push the air out of your lungs from your abdomen up–your hand should come in towards your body.
Repeat this several times.
Breathe normally and pay attention to your body. Is there anything that seems tight that shouldn’t be? Or perhaps something kept coming into your mind and interrupted your concentration on your breathing?
Envision Jesus standing in front of you, and put that worry, that stress, that tightness in his hands. Let yourself imagine what he does with it.
Make sure you keep breathing! As you exhale, you may need to release that stress or worry again, or even repeatedly.
When your time is up, change position slowly and reflect. How do you feel compared to when you started? Were you able to let go of any difficult life circumstances or stresses and put them in Jesus’ hands? Do you think this might be a helpful practice for you to continue?
For a more straightforward approach to deep breathing exercises, I found this Christian counselling practice’s page. To avoid the rather labored version of Pachelbel’s Cannon, just turn down your computer’s sound or refuse to let the page use Flash.
One of the most powerful disciplines we can engage in as Christians is practicing the presence of Christ. The classic work on this is Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (available in many different formats and prices on Amazon.com and many other places). In it Brother Lawrence mentions the different approaches he used to remind himself of God’s presence with him at all times–Brother Lawrence is the man who talks about “games with minutes” and is famously known for practicing the presence of God while washing the dishes, which to me is simultaneously encouraging and discouraging.
Many people with I’ve spoken with about practicing the presence of God or Jesus say they simply can’t do it–that they’re not wired that way. I don’t buy that. Think about it: when you fall in love with someone, you think about them all the time. you yearn for them when they are not there, you keep your body angled towards them when they are in the same room but not next to you. You are effectively practicing their presence when they’re not next to you.
This highly sensitive (and perhaps highly strung) tuning does change as you grow into a relationship. Right now, John is in the room next to me. I have an awareness of his location in the house. When I come home after being out, the first this I do is I find out where he is in the house. I always have a little piece of my mind listening for him. I have to be really concentrating on something else to not hear him when he calls to me, regardless of how softly he speaks. If he were to sneak out of the house, I would come into an awareness of his absence with a matter of minutes. I’d start looking for him. I’d call him if I couldn’t find him. Maybe you’re not like this with your spouse, but you are with your child.
When the Bible talks about Jesus as the bridegroom and us–the Church–as the bride, there are certain realities that are implied and transferable to our personal relationships with him. The highly-tuned love between husband and wife is one of them.
So I do think you can practice the presence of God.
The key to practicing the presence of God as a spiritual discipline is finding a way to do it that works for you. Brother Lawrence’s “games with seconds and minutes” doesn’t work for me because I have such dislike for competition–even competition with myself! There have been times that a certain distasteful task will prompt me to be mindful of God. but sometimes when that subject becomes less distasteful I forget to practice the presence of God anymore!
Just as in any relationship dynamics change, circumstances change, “real life” interferes–and how you relate to God changes. Expect that the places and prompts that you use to remind you of God’s presence now will change over time. Just be mindful of the changes and keep looking for the new ways God wants you to be mindful of him.
This is a big topic that I certainly can’t cover in just one post. So I’m starting a series called “A Moment with God” that’s about practicing His presence. I’d like to address spiritual disciplines that set us up to become more aware of Christ’s presence, then look at other options besides dish washing and self-competition to might help you to see God’s hand at work more and more throughout your day.
If you have any questions or topic suggestions for this series, please feel free to comment! Both are most welcome.