THE GOD WHO SEES ME
One of the scriptural testimonies concerning our encounter with God is that of “being seen, being known” by him. This is different from hearing “Yahweh’s voice shattering the cedars of Lebanon” (Ps 29:5); or experiencing his presence in his mighty deeds when “he split the Sea of Reeds in two” (Ps 137:13); or even from Elijah’s sensing his presence in the “gentle whisper” in front of the cave (1 Kgs 19:12. God’s presence and activity is manifested in a variety of ways in the Scripture.
Besides recognizing the Presence in history, nature, and often in angelic visitations (Gen 18), Israel also experienced God’s presence in another way: being known by him, being seen by him. We read in Ps 139: “Yahweh, you examine me and know me. You know when I sit, when I rise. You watch when I walk or lie down” (vv.1-3). Unfortunately, this “being seen” by God was very often used in a frightfully moralistic sense: “He is watching to see if you are good or bad.” I wish to present a much more positive aspect of his seeing us.
“Being known by God, being seen by him,” can also be an object of faith, a way of sensing, experiencing, or simply being, in the presence of God: “I believe, God, Whoever you are, that you see me and know me at this moment.” This is, now, and has been for a number of years, my normal way of contemplation. And when we contemplate, as Merton in his last book says, we “contemplate with our whole being, and not just with one of its parts. It is an intuition of reality.” (The Inner Experience, p. 59). I would like to briefly describe this way of praying: a contemplative intuition of God seeking me.
You could literally read hundreds of books on contemplative prayer where it is stated that God is beyond all concepts, ideas, imagings. The classic text is the opening of The Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius: “As far as is possible, raise thyself up in unknowing even unto union with Him Who is beyond all essence and all knowledge, to Him Who is beyond all, Who is utterly unknowable, by the cessation of all knowledge.” As I said, hundreds of such texts could be quoted from the mystics down through the ages.
And be it understood that, in this article, I am not saying what I describe is any “higher” kind of prayer, or will unite one more with God. The mystics testify that one is united to God by love, and that countless people who know nothing theoretically about “contemplative prayer” are really great contemplatives. “If you love me, my Father will love you and we will come and make our home in you.” Who loves most, prays best. I simply wish to testify to a form of contemplative prayer I find helpful, and which nourishes my union with the Lord. Others may find it helpful as well.
Throughout my personal prayer history I have tried – as I’m sure we all have – to imagine God in some way, to rest in his presence, or even to strive for some pure idea about God. You eventually, though, realize, after a while, that all such ideas are very inadequate, very limited, and that – as the mystics teach – nothing that we can think or imagine is really God.
It isn’t that our ideas about God are not true. We believe in analogy. We see the beauty of nature and try to have an awareness of “infinite Beauty.” But it isn’t easy. We believe there are three Persons in God, and that this is true, even though we cannot understand it. But how to imagine the Trinity in our prayer? It isn’t easy.
These ideas are at the level of belief – what we believe about God; the quod, as the theologians would say. However, everything that we can think about God is very limited. Only another Person of the Trinity can fully know God.
Or we can try the Hindu or Buddhist way, and seek to reach some kind of totally non-thinking state of mind. This is not easy. Anyhow, it’s very impersonal: God for us is not a Void. How can you love a Void? And how long can one remain in such a non-thinking state? For Christians, this state would always be filled with a Presence, and a Presence would have to be imagined in some way.
You will also often read in the mystics that you can come to a realization that God is, “I am who am,” and rest in this awareness of the fact of God’s existence. But I was led to something different: I am seen by God.
Being Seen by God: Old Testament Witness
What I was led to over the years was an act of trusting faith in the Presence of One who sees me, but whom I cannot comprehend, or even imagine with my mind or imagination. In other words, my faith, my intuitive gaze, was focused on the “Presence of One who sees me.” I don’t know exactly when this awareness of “being seen” occurred in my prayer life, but I do know it was one of the graces I had been waiting for.
The Lord’s Mercy to Hagar
The grace came before I read the story of Hagar (Gen 16:1-14), but when I re-read it, this new prayer experience was intensified. Rather, after I read it, I recognized that her experience was now also mine, and that it had a solid scriptural foundation.
You remember the story, I’m sure. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, frustrated by not being able to conceive, gives her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham, to conceive a child. When Hagar does conceive, Sarah becomes jealous – the source of much sin in the Scriptures – and sends the hapless Hagar off into the desert. The angel of the Lord meets her and asks where she has come from and where she is going. Hagar pours out her sad tale. The angel then gives her a promise about the future of the child.
It is Hagar’s experience of God that I wish to elaborate on here. How Hagar experienced her encounter with the angel of God gave me an insight, and a scriptural confirmation, of how I was now praying.
We will consider several translations of this admittedly rather corrupt text.
The new translation of Everett Fox from the original Hebrew: “Now she called the name of YHWH, the one who was speaking to her. You God of seeing! For she said: Have I actually gone on seeing here after his seeing me? Therefore the well was called: Well of the Living One Who-Sees-Me.”
The New International Version: “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me, for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’ That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi’ [well of the Living One who sees me].
The New Jerusalem bible: “Hagar gave a name to Yahweh who had spoken to her. ‘You are El Roi,’ [God of Vision] by which she meant, ‘Did I not go on seeing here, after him who sees me? This is why the well is called the well of Lahai roi [Lahai roi may mean “the well of the Living One who sees me”].
Fox comments that Hagar’s exclamation may mean that she “possibly is expressing surprise that she survived her encounter with God.” Nevertheless, she expressed it by saying something like, “Is it possible I can still see after being seen by God?” There is a scriptural intuition that no one can see God and live. Hagar wonders if one can be seen by God and live. Yes, you can.
The much later Psalm 139 can be seen as a scriptural commentary on Hagar’s experience. God not only sees and watches us from some high vantage point, or from a place outside of us: He sees us from within, totally penetrating with his gaze and presence every part of our being.
A word better than God sees us is that God knows us. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I stand” (NIV). Again, “Yahweh, you examine me and know me, you know when I sit, when I rise” (NJB). Another translation of the word “know” in Ps 139 is “amazing knowledge” – amazing, not so much that God can know me, but that the extent and depth of his knowledge of me is beyond even my own comprehension and knowledge of myself.
If I cannot comprehend myself, then how can I understand the God who is at the same time absolutely transcendent (meaning that he is not me) and totally imminent (meaning that he is nearer to me than I am to myself)? How could we possibly comprehend such a Reality? He knows every movement of my being, keeping in existence at every moment each one of the trillions of my brain cells and atoms. Truly, “you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Ps 139:5-6).
Faith in the One Who Sees Me
For many years my prayer has simply been a loving awareness of the God who sees me. In other words, the object of my faith (the quod) is an idea, but not an idea of trying to imagine who God is. It is an idea totally charged with the realization of being seen. (A poor example might be an awareness that I am being monitored on a camera in a store. This awareness is more than an idea: I’m aware of being seen.) I can have an awareness of God knowing me without attempting to imagine, or have a notion of, attempt to his nature.
At a certain stage in my prayer life I stopped trying to “see” God with a concept, stopped striving for a state of mind devoid of all concepts. I simply became aware that God sees me. I believe that this is a more pure faith stance – in the contemplative sense – than trying to see God. To repeat: whatever you think or imagine about God is not God. This is called, in the tradition, the apophatic approach: It’s more accurate to say what God is not than to say what he is.
But is not the awareness that God sees me extremely accurate? It is a prayer stance somewhere mid-way between the apophatic and the attempt to form concepts of God (the kataphatic tradition.) If your act of faith is directed to a Presence who sees you, this is absolutely certain knowledge, because God does see you. You don’t have to try and imagine who sees you: you simply believe that God sees you. The act of faith is directed to the Seeing One. I can say, “I love You, I thank You" to the One who sees me.
Assuredly, I have a theology of the One who sees me. I have a faith understanding that it is the Trinity who sees me, it is Love who sees me, and so forth. But I leave this understanding in the background. I don’t try to imagine Love or the Three Persons in one God. These concepts penetrate the all-seeing Presence, but they are secondary. My act of faith is simply directed to the One who knows me, sees me, and I can rest, in a contemplative way, in this truth. There is no need to flit back and forth in the mind, seeking for exalted notions about God, or trying to remain in a state of mindlessness. The mind has found a contemplative resting place where it can peacefully remain. True, I have to keep bringing myself back to this awareness; distractions still occur. Neither do I claim for this approach the need or presence of any extraordinary, mystical grace. Anyone. With the ordinary assistance of grace, is capable of making the God Who Sees Me an object of faith.
Illuminated by this gaze, other insights into Psalm 139 reached a new depth. One is God’s knowledge of my own thoughts: “You understand my thoughts from afar. A word is not yet on my tongue before you, Yahweh, know all about it.” Not only before a word is on my tongue does God know it: he knows it even before it reaches my own consciousness – from afar – that is, in that deep place in my heart where thoughts originate. In that most secret of all places, and farther than any star, in that place, God is present and already knows my thoughts and desires. Did not the Lord say that the Father knows what we need before we ask? He is the One who inspires us “both to will and to do.” So, he also knows our depths even before we know of our own knowing, willing, and desiring.
This awareness of God’s knowing my thoughts at the level of my being has profound implications for the simplicity of prayer. If I am aware that God knows the thoughts in the depth of my being, there is no need to really express them in words or thoughts. It is not exactly a wordless kind of praying, for I am still thinking these thoughts in my heart. It’s simply the realization that there is no great need to express them, to sort of make God aware of them! It is realizing that I don’t actually need to put everything into distinct words since our Father knows the wordless prayer before I speak it – knows it “from afar.”
To give up this wordless kind of speaking would be too close to quietism, which held that we need not make any acts at all. You might say I m aware of my heart making acts of love, thanksgiving, etc., but I’m letting God read my heart, listen to my heart, rather than making up sentences. It is a kind of silent speech.
Thus, I am aware that my heart is saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you”; or “I love you and wish to serve you for all eternity.” But I don’t need to say much. And if I pray for a person, all I need to do is speak that person’s name and place him or her in the Lord’s concern. This is true of specific intentions as well. Someone told an abba once that he had a sore foot. Should he pray for its healing or for an acceptance of the pain. The abba said, “Just go before God and say ‘God, foot!’ And let him decide.” The same with any person. Just let your heart recall that person and God will do the rest.
This realization of being seen is at the heart of Judaeo-Christian mysticism. The Greek way is to travel through all the levels of intelligibility until you finally arrive at a “cloud of unknowing.” But try it! It’s hard to remain in such a cloud without a special grace. It seems that the biblical way of prayer is more concrete. God knows the number of the hairs on our heads, holds us by the hand, and knows us as a father knows his children. The child does not know very much about the father, except that he is there. The father is rather indistinct, but a living person but a living presence nonetheless.
This experience of “being seen” also has deeper implications for my understanding of my being. (And I attribute this understanding also to an insight of GK Chesterton’s.) We tend to think of creation as having happened a long time ago. Actually, God is creating at every moment. At every instant God is saying, “Let there be light, let there be animals, let there be man.” At every instant created realities are passing from non-being to being. Chesterton has a marvellous phrase: God is immortally active. The “seven days of creation are happening every week!
The verbs in the following lines of Psalm 139 are in the past tense, but I will put them in the present since this creative activity of God is going on at every moment. “For you create my inmost being, you knit me together in my mother’s womb [i.e., in my present existence]; my frame is not hidden from you when I am being made in the secret place, when I am woven together in the depths of the earth. (13,15)
The marvellous wonder of my being is being knit together at every moment by the One who knows me.
St. Augustine took me one step further. Before I read the following commentary in his On the Trinity, I used to think, “I exist, therefore God knows me.” Augustine gave me a deeper insight: “He does not know all his creatures, both spiritual and corporeal, because they are, but they are because he knows them” (Book 15). It is because God knows me that I exist. If he didn’t know me, I wouldn’t exist. It is God’s seeing and knowing me that gives my being.
Thus, some integral components of my awareness of the Presence towards myself (all of which I’d say are self-evident) are:
He was not ignorant of what he was going to create. He created because he knew. He did not know them differently when they were created than when they were to be created, for nothing has been added to his wisdom from them. It is written also in the Book of Ecclesiaticus: ‘All things were known to him before they were created, so also after they were perfected’ (23:29)
Before I came to be in my mother’s womb, I must have already had some kind of existence in the mind of God. Ephesians says that we were known by God even before our coming to be in this present world: “Thus he chose us in Christ before the world was made.” (1:4). If we were chosen, we were known. As Augustine said, “He did not know them differently when they were created.” So the mystery of being known is an eternal one. Just as God knew me in my mother’s womb before I came conscious of my own reality, so I was known in his divine knowing even before I was born into this present world.
This does not imply what is called the “pre-existence of souls,” that is, that my present mode of existence is not very different from that before I was born. I was, in some way, known by God from all eternity. And if I have always been known, then I shall always be known, since I cannot pass out of God’s eternal knowledge. In some way, in the being and knowledge of God, I too am eternal, since I always was and always will be known by him.
When St. Paul was trying to express what the ultimate vision of God would be, he used this same experience of being known: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12)
It is only a comparison, of course, but when Paul was trying to express how far-reaching our knowledge of God will be, he said it will be something like God’s exhaustive knowledge of us: we shall know God to the full extent of our powers.
The awareness of being seen by God deepens other aspects of my awareness: I am kept in my very existence by God’s seeing me; the One who sees me has always seen me and known me; and he always will know me. Unlike Hagar, we do not have to go out to a well in the desert to have an experience of being seen by God. Now, in Christ, the well is everywhere. And we do not have to fear that we will die if God sees us. The Trinity now dwells within us. We are totally seen and totally loved, and Jesus says, do not be afraid.
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