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Seek My Face: Prayer as Personal Relationship in Scripture

Seek My Face: Prayer as Personal Relationship in Scripture

by William A. Barry

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What does it mean to have a relationship with God? Why do so many of us avoid a relationship with God at all costs? What examples from Scripture might guide us in developing a close, prayerful relationship with God? In Seek My Face , William A. Barry, SJ, provides thoughtful and easy-to-understand answers that can help anyone draw closer to God.Throughout


What does it mean to have a relationship with God? Why do so many of us avoid a relationship with God at all costs? What examples from Scripture might guide us in developing a close, prayerful relationship with God? In Seek My Face , William A. Barry, SJ, provides thoughtful and easy-to-understand answers that can help anyone draw closer to God.Throughout the book, Fr. Barry introduces situations and personalities from both the Old and New Testaments to show readers the various ways in which people in the Bible—Abraham, Moses, Peter, Jesus—drew closer to God, and how we can use their examples to develop a closer relationship with God ourselves.

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Loyola Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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5.00(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.50(d)

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Preface to the Second Edition This little book on prayer is a sequel to God and You: Prayer as a Personal Relationship, which appeared in 1987. As is that book, this one too is based on experience, my own and that of many others who have talked to me about their experience of God. As is that book, this one too is based in the Ignatian tradition, which uses Scripture imaginatively to let people encounter God. In this book I take up various scriptural incidents and personalities to illustrate various ways of developing an intimate relationship with God; with God’s Son, Jesus; and with God’s Holy Spirit—a relationship akin to a friendship. I hope to help people to enter more deeply into the relationship that grounds our very existence in this world, and I am grateful to Loyola Press for reprinting this second, slightly revised edition.
While Scripture forms the base from which I work, I have to admit that I am not a Scripture scholar. I have tried to be faithful to the texts, but my method might be called eisegesis rather than exegesis. In other words, I read into the text more than the authors intended. Such a method has an honorable tradition in the history of Christianity and Judaism. An example is the way in which the Song of Songs has been used to describe our relationships to God. Another example is the way Ignatius of Loyola invites retreatants to contemplate the Gospels in the Spiritual Exercises. Readers who are looking for careful scriptural exegesis to understand passages are referred to such works as The Jerome Biblical Commentary or to commentaries on the various books of the Bible.
I have dedicated this book to Marika Geoghegan and the late Joseph E. McCormick, SJ, both of whom have been friends for many years and have read my manuscripts with great care, attention to detail, and encouragement. Both of them have been especially helpful with this book. Thanks seems too small a word for all that I owe them.
I also want to thank the following members of my community at the time of the first edition (some of whom are no longer Jesuits) who read most or all of this book as I wrote it and were so helpful and encouraging: Robert Araujo, SJ, the late James L. Burke, SJ, Gerald Calhoun, Gregory Chisholm, SJ, the late William Finneran, SJ, the late Thomas Ford, SJ, Robert Gilroy, SJ, the late James Kane, Thomas Landy, Daniel Merrigan, Thomas Murphy, SJ, William Spokesfield, SJ, Michael Toth, and George Williams, SJ. Once again Philomena Sheerin, MMM, has read the manuscript carefully and by her enthusiasm boosted my confidence in its worth. I want to thank my former provincials, Edward M. O’Flaherty, SJ, the late Robert E. Manning, SJ and Robert J. Levens, SJ, and my present one, Thomas J. Regan, SJ, for missioning me to write and for their confidence in me. Finally, I thank all those who have entrusted to me their experiences of God. If this book is helpful to others, it is due, under God, to these people who enlarged my own understanding of God’s ways. If readers find help in these pages, please offer a prayer for all the people who have made it possible for me to write them and, of course, for me.   1
Our Ambivalence about God Intimacy with God. What could that mean? In a series of chapters based on Bible stories, I would like to flesh out an answer to this question. For beginning purposes let us assume that intimacy means a close personal relationship. This definition itself raises at least one issue immediately, our ambivalence about such a relationship with God.
When we hear someone say, “I want a closer relationship with God,” many of us may react as did a woman quoted in Barry and Connolly’s The Practice of Spiritual Direction when she heard something similar: “In my time we wanted to be on the right side of him, but we didn’t want to get too close” (1982, 95.) We may smile at the remark, but most of us, with a bit of honesty, would say that any desire we have for closeness to God is tempered by our fear of what such closeness might entail. One of the least controvertible statements we can make about our relationship with God (from our side) is that it is a highly ambivalent one, an approach-¬avoidance dance, as it were.
The words of the Israelites in the desert to Moses may typify at least part of our attitude toward God: “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). Yet at the same time we may be moved by the words of the Psalmist:Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,
 be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
 Your face, LORD, do I seek.
 Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
 you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
 O God of my salvation! (Psalm 27:7–9)In this chapter I want to discuss this ambivalence toward God and ways of dealing with it in prayer.
If you have read this far, you have demonstrated an interest in God and in prayer. There are many people with such an interest these days. Books on prayer sell well, and workshops and talks on prayer draw well. Many people seem to desire to see the face of God more clearly. On the other hand, anyone who gives spiritual direction can attest to a persistent resistance to a closer relationship with God in everyone who desires such closeness. Even after experiences of God’s closeness, indeed sometimes especially after very positive experiences, people find themselves unaccountably reluctant to continue such types of prayer. We seem condemned to make efforts to avoid the very thing we want. It might help us to look at some of the sources of our resistance.
Many people who desire a closer relationship with God have an image of God that makes closeness difficult. For example, whether it derives from childhood relationships with one’s parents or other authority figures or from the way God was presented and the way the child understood the presentation, an image of God as a demanding, harsh, all—knowing taskmaster cannot sustain a desire for closeness with God. If such a subconscious image dominates a person’s vision of God, homilies and even testimonies about God’s loving-¬kindness, while they may evoke a desire to know God differently, will not make possible a real openness to closeness to such a God.
Many people resist closeness to God because they fear that such closeness will require a change in their lifestyle or a more radical religiousness or a conversion. “If I get close to God, I’ll have to change.” “What if God wants me to become a missionary!” Fears such as these may come from the kinds of images of God mentioned previously, but they also may be a sign of some unease about one’s present lifestyle or behavior. Whatever their source, such fears inhibit closeness.
People resist closeness to Jesus often enough because of realistic fears that they may get the same treatment he received. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Taking these words seriously would daunt any sane person.
Finally, and perhaps most deeply, there seems to be in each of us a profound fear that closeness to God will destroy us. The Israelites voiced that fear to Moses. In Isaiah 6:5 the prophet Isaiah has a vision of God and then says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).
These sources of resistance sit deep within us, and we cannot wish or will them away. Are we then condemned to a lifetime of desiring closeness to God and of doing everything in our power to prevent such closeness? Reflection on these Scriptures and on our human relationships may show us a way to proceed out of this impasse.
The Israelites and Isaiah obviously were aware of their reactions to God’s closeness. So the first piece of advice is to pay attention to your real feelings, reactions, and thoughts about God. We cannot become aware of all of our reactions at once, but we can advert to some of them. Just as obviously, the Israelites and Isaiah expressed what they felt. Here is the crux of the matter. If the Israelites had not told Moses how afraid they were, they would not have heard him say: “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:20). Their fear was not taken away, but the writer seems to indicate that it was eased enough so that they could stand at a distance while Moses entered the thick cloud. In the beginning that may be the best that we can do ourselves; that is, voice our fear and then stand at a bit of a distance to see what happens.
In the case of Isaiah the response comes directly from the Lord. “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out’?” (Isaiah 6:6–7). Isaiah, it seems, is so transformed by this experience that he now responds eagerly, “Here am I; send me,” when he hears the Lord say, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8).
If we are aware that we are, for whatever reason, afraid of God, then we can express that fear in words like these: “God, I’m terrified of you; can you help me get over the fear?” If we find that we cannot really believe that God is love, we can say so: “The Bible says that you are love, but I have never experienced you that way. Help me out of this dilemma”; “I want to experience your love, but I’m afraid; don’t scare me”; “Jesus called you Papa (Abba); I’d like to feel that way about you too, but I don’t”; “I want to get closer to you, but I’m afraid of what you’ll ask of me”; or “I’m so full of anger about my mother’s death that I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m afraid that you will punish me for feeling this way. Help me.”
Notice that these little prayers express the ambivalence simply and straightforwardly. We say what we are afraid of and what we want. The next step is up to God. All we can do is give God a chance to respond by sitting quietly, or reading a Scripture text, or taking a walk in the woods, or doing anything that gets our minds off ourselves and our own concerns for a little while.
A consideration of any personal relationship can also reinforce what reflection on these Scripture texts has recommended to us. If I want to get to know you better but am afraid of you for some reason, the best way around the impasse is for me to tell you what I’m feeling and ask for your help. You may be offended by my feeling afraid or by my forwardness and tell me to get lost, but we have abundant evidence in Scripture that God does not act that way. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me” (Isaiah 49:15–16). In fact, you, like most human beings, probably will be disarmed by my candor and even flattered that I want to get to know you better and trust you enough to speak honestly. My fear of you will be overcome only by my experience of you. The very same thing is true of our relationship with God. Only our experiences of God will change our faulty images. Isaiah found out by experience that he could “see” God and live, and this experience then led him to respond positively to God’s invitation to undertake a mission. It is more than likely that our own relationship with God will not shift so rapidly from fear to companionship, but even the first step of telling God how we feel is a step toward a deeper intimacy because we have revealed something of ourselves.
Some readers may be helped, as I have been, to express their ambivalence to God by John Donne’s prayerful “Holy Sonnet XIV”:Better my heart, three-personed God; for You As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit You, but O, to no end;
Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto Your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to You, imprison me, for I Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. 2
Feeling Accepted: The Foundational Experience With all our ambivalence about closeness to God, how do we take the first step? What will so involve us with God that we will stay with the relationship even when our fears and anxieties are very strong? Experience tells us that we risk intimacy with another only when our love for the other is stronger than our fears. The first letter of John tells us: “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. . . . There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. . . . We love because he first loved us” (4:16–19). Here we have the clue we need. To overcome our ambivalence, we need a deep experience of how God has loved us first. We need, in other words, an experience that will elicit from our hearts that lovely French phrase Qu’il est bon, le bon Dieu, which means “How good the good God is.” But how do we attain that experience, especially if our fears are quite strong?
First, let us turn to a nonbiblical source to begin to approximate an answer. In Antoine de Saint-¬Exupéry’s The Little Prince the little prince from asteroid B-¬612 meets a fox on our earth and learns from the fox what friendship means. The fox asks the prince to “tame him,” “to establish ties.” “I want to, very much. . . . But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand,” says the little prince. “One only understands the things that one tames,” replies the fox; that is, one only really understands what one loves or has befriended. He then tells the little prince that he must be very patient if he wants to tame him. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me—like that—in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day” (1943, 66–67). And so begins the process of taming, of establishing ties, between the fox and the little prince.
As we begin to desire a deeper and closer relationship with God, we may be as skittish as the fox. We need to be tamed. We can begin as simply as the fox does by asking God to “tame” us, to spend time with us each day, but slowly so that we get used to the divine presence. The fox also tells the little prince that rites are important, and suggests that they set aside a time each day when the little prince can come. We can do the same with God and make the time as long or as short as we wish or are able.
When we are feeling skittish and afraid, what do we desire? We want to experience God as gentle, caring, loving, and attractive—indeed, as desiring our friendship. We want to enjoy God and thus feel safe, as the British psychiatrist J. S. Mackenzie puts it. The psychoanalyst Henry Guntrip cites him, and he goes on to say: “It is a common experience in psychotherapy to find patients who fear and hate God, a God who, in the words of J. S. Mackenzie ‘is always snooping around after sinners.’?” (1957, 194). Anyone who has done pastoral work can say that it is a common experience to find many Christians like this. And while sermons and homilies whose theme is the love of God may help, ultimately people need to experience that love.
In his insightful book Let This Mind Be in You, Sebastian Moore concludes that if we could experience our creation, we would experience in absolute fashion how desirable we are. God’s desire for me makes me to be, to be desirable. With us what is lovely arouses our desire, but God’s desire (love) creates what is lovely. So God’s desire creates me as lovely or desirable. The question is, Can we experience our creation? On the face of it the question seems absurd because almost automatically we think of creation as something over and done with. But God’s creative act is never done; if it were, we would not be here. With such an understanding of creation the question takes on present meaning. If we could experience our creation, then indeed we would have the foundational experience we are seeking.
Moore points to experiences of a welling up of desire for “I know not what” (1985, 36). The desire is not for this or that lovely being, although the occasion for the experience may be the presence of some lovely being. The desire is for the Unnameable, the All, the Mystery. Moore refers to an experience that C. S. Lewis describes in his autobiography Suprised by Joy:As I stood before a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s “enormous bliss” of Eden . . . comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire, but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past. . . . And before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison (1955, 22).This experience of desire is actually the joy that surprised Lewis.
I once had an experience that seemed to be of the same stuff, as it were. I was walking outside by the shore on a lovely, clear, crisp autumn day. I admired the sun on the autumn leaves and on the blue water. Suddenly there welled up in me a feeling of great well-¬being and a strong desire for “I know not what,” for the “All,” for union, that made me very happy. I remembered a few other times of such joy and desire and realized why autumn is my favorite season—because I associate it in my memory with such experiences. Almost as quickly as it came it was gone. I was happy afterward, not downcast that I no longer had the experience. I would like to have the experience again, but I am not bereft without it. Later that week in a class I recounted the experience, and many in the class acknowledged having similar experiences. I wonder whether these are not experiences of our creation.
God, as Moore says, is the only one who can directly touch the core of our desirableness. God’s desire makes us desirable, makes us the apple of God’s eye. It would be strange, indeed, if we never experienced that core reality. In the experience I had, besides the desire for “I know not what,” the “All,” there was a sense of personal well-¬being. I felt good about myself insofar as I thought of myself at all. So it does not seem odd to think of the experience as an experience of my creation. Nor is it strange that such experiences are intermittent and fleeting. Our tendency is to pay more attention to what happens at the surface of our being than to what goes on in our depths. Moreover, we have learned not to put too much stock in experiences that might turn our heads or make us proud. Moore equates original sin with those elements in our culture and families that press us to deny our loveliness, to repress the memory of what for Lewis is joy, the memory of the experience of being desired into being and of thus desiring “we know not what.” Joy may not only suprise us but also awe or terrify us. Ambivalence is ever present in our closest relationships and should, therefore, be expected in the most intimate of all, our relationship with God. Thus, for many reasons these experiences of our creation will seem evanescent. Yet don’t they leave us recalling that our hearts burned within us, as did the hearts of the two disciples who met the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus?
If we take such experiences seriously, we will understand how Augustine could say: “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (Confessions I, 1). Moore indicates that the creative touch of God rouses my desirableness, which in turn sets off my desire for “I know not what.” As did Augustine, C. S. Lewis sought to assuage that desire in any number of ways, but none of them proved to be “I know not what.” Ultimately they found that joy was the desire for the Mystery we call God. The theologian Rudolph Otto’s Holy, the attractive and awesome One, is the lovely One who is the deepest object of all our desiring. I believe that such an experience of our creation is the affective first principle and foundation on which any development of a personal relationship with God must rest.
There is a wonderful story in the book of Exodus that can also serve as a help to overcome our fears. Moses and the people of Israel are in the desert.Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:12–23)First, notice that Moses makes known to God what he wants. He takes God at his word, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways.” The first reason Moses adduces to obtain what he wants is personal. “you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’?” The second is also interesting, “Consider too that this nation is your people.” In other words, “Show me your ways also for the sake of the people you ask me to lead.” Each one of us can count on the same arguments to induce God’s self-¬revelation as gracious to us. God has made each one of us because of a desire for us; so we can remind God of this, even using Moses’s words. Moreover, each of us is responsible for others, in relationship to others who are also God’s children, God’s people. We can also use Moses’s second argument. “If I’m less afraid of you, and more in love with you, I’ll be a better mother, father, friend, coworker, parishioner, community member, and so on.”
Notice the tender concern of God. God knows that we are limited in our ability to tolerate closeness: “No one shall see me and live.” I am reminded of the poignant phrase Ignatius of Loyola uses in the Spiritual Exercises: “I will ponder with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me, and how much He has given of what He possesses, and finally, how much as far as He can, the same Lord desires to give Himself to me according to His divine decrees” (S. E. 234).
The words in italics are the ones that sound so poignant, as though God would like to give us more of himself but cannot because of our limitations. So God says to Moses, “I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” God will protect a friend from whatever dangers there are in closeness. What a touching thing for God to say and do!
Finally, we note God’s self-¬revelation as the merciful One. We want to experience him as gracious to us, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
It would seem that God knows how skittish we are and tailors the presence to our ability and desire to tolerate it. If, like the fox, we ask God to be present but at a respectable distance, so that we can gradually get used to the presence, God, it seems, will abide by our wishes. One gets the impression that God will do whatever is necessary to prove to us that he really is “Abba,” dear father, dear mother, for us. God wants us to believe that and to accept closeness. Not even the murder of Jesus could change God’s mind and heart. We need an experience of such a God to involve us in the relationship so strongly that we will let God overcome our fears. 

Meet the Author

William A. Barry, SJ, is a veteran spiritual director who is currently serving as tertian director for the New England Province of the Society of Jesus. He has taught at the University of Michigan, the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. His many works include Letting God Come Close , A Friendship Like No Other , Here's My Heart, Here's My Hand , Seek My Face , and God's Passionate Desire (Loyola Press) and God and You .

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