Have you ever been in a conversation with someone where the other person was obviously not paying attention to a word you said? They look around at every little thing going on around you, except at you. It's as if they go out of their way to avoid making any sort of eye contact with you. One of my biggest pet-peeves is having a conversation with a person who is messing around with their i-phone. I've gotten up and walked away from folks who were "texting" while trying to have a conversation with me. Conversing with such people is exhausting, maddening, frustrating, and pointless. It makes one feel like you don't really matter to the person with whom you are trying to speak.
Or have you ever been in a conversation with a person who simply seems incapable of making eye contact with you. They stare at the floor, at their shoes, at their hands in their laps, anywhere but into your eyes. For me, conversations like that are unsettling. It makes me feel like the person has something to hide, or as if they aren't really interested in opening up to having any sort of personal relationship with me because such a relationship would require them to move outside of their comfort zone.
But then we've all been in those conversations where eye-contact is constant. The intensity of such conversations is almost electrifying. If you're an observer of such a conversation you can feel the intensity coming from the people conversing. If you are the person in such a conversation you may feel as if you're looking into the soul of the other and he is looking into your soul. Such conversations happen between the twitterpated couple on a date, and between good friends simply sharing their thoughts with one another. Such conversations even happen between married couples and friends without a word being spoken. They glance over at each other, make eye contact, and it seems as if they've just communicated an entire world to one another.
When you work in sales you understand the importance of eye-contact. Eye-contact makes your customer/client/prospect feel important. Eye-contact lets your prospect know that you genuinely care about his concerns and his needs. Through this it builds trust. By building trust you lay the foundation for a solid professional relationship. In my own work in sales I've found that when I maintain eye-contact with my customer I generally have a much easier time selling to them, not because I am manipulating them in any way, but because I am demonstrating that I genuinely care for them and that I think my product and my services are exactly the thing that is going to help make their experience with my company a completely satisfactory experience.
While I was working yesterday all of this flooded into my mind at once and I realized that it applies to our prayer life every bit as much as to our day-to-day relationships. We've all experienced distraction at prayer. It is one of the biggest struggles against which we must constantly fight. I realized, however, that those thoughts and distractions during prayer correspond to the friend who is always fidgeting with their i-phone while we're trying to talk to them. Prayer is a two-way conversation. Even if you are reading your prayers from a book, God is communicating to you through the words of the prayer every bit as much as you are communicating to Him through those same words. It is no wonder that the saints all say that when we just prattle off the words without giving them any thought, without being attentive, then we are not truly praying. When we allow ourselves to be distracted at prayer, thinking of the things we have to do today, or the conversations we had with friends the night before, or fretting about unknown futures, or whatever, then we are no different in our relationship with God than that friend who will not let go of texting for 20 minutes to have a real conversation with you.
For others among us, letting go and letting God penetrate to the depths of our being makes us uncomfortable. Maybe you have a heightened sense of your own sinfulness and unworthiness. Perhaps you are ashamed of some past misdeeds. Perhaps you are afraid that if you enter into a deeper relationship with God - if you make "eye-contact" with Him - then He will see you for what you are and reject you. I know I have been affected by this in my own spiritual life every bit as much as by just general distraction. But here's a news flash for all of us. God knows the depths of our beings. He knew us before we were even thought of by our parents. He knows our hearts inner-most desires and longings, even the disordered and sinful passions that have made their home in our hearts. And yet, despite all that God has not rejected us, nor will He. As St. Paul mentions, Christ came while we were yet sinners, and He died for us in order to heal our iniquities. That thought alone should give us ample courage to lift our mind's eye from the ground and make "eye-contact" with God in prayer, allowing Him to enter our hearts and heal us.
St. Theophan the Recluse spoke of prayer as descending with the mind into the heart and standing there unswervingly before God. Perhaps another way we can think of this is making eye-contact with God, and holding that gaze unswervingly. The Jesus Prayer, repeated throughout the day, becomes that quick loving glance to the Other that communicates more than words alone could ever hope to communicate. In order to pray truly we must learn to enter the with our mind into the heart, and there to gaze into the eyes of a God Who loves us beyond our own comprehension. That gaze is intense. That gaze is purifying. That gaze is healing. I'm reminded of all the times in the Gospels where there is mention of Christ looking upon someone. Any time the Gospel mentions "the look" things happen. Lepers and blind men are healed, the dead are raised to life, hearts are converted. We can also think of the power of Christ's gaze over His enemies. When at Nazareth the people sought to throw Him over the cliff, he simply gazed at them and walked through the crowds unharmed. In the Gethsemene, when the court Temple came to arrest Him Jesus gazed at them and they fell to the ground.
In prayer that gaze, that "eye-contact," has the same power. It has the power to raise us to new life and to heal the wounds of our sin. It also has the power to drive the demons out of our hearts and to cut through the passions of this world that we have allowed to penetrate us. But Our Lord will never allow that power to have any effect on us unless we first turn our gaze to His gaze. We must learn to gaze into the eyes of our Lord and Savior. May heaven consume us.