Prayer, an experience of one’s Relationship with God

by Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt (Benedictine Hermit)


“Lord, teach us to pray,” asked the Apostles of Jesus as they had been watching him praying. This plea comes from every human being at some stage in life as no one is absolutely certain  what prayer truly is. Jesus gave an immediate response to the apostles in what is commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father (Lk.11:1-4).  It was not intended to be a formula of prayer that he taught as some have made it out to be. Rather it was the pattern of all prayer for anyone seeking to have communion with God through prayer. Of primary importance in the Lord’s Prayer is the outlook that sees God as Father and relates to him in the intimacy of that relationship. God is always “Our Father” meaning that no one stands alone in the presence of God. We are accompanied by those who are connected with us in love. Intimacy and warmth are necessary characteristics of true prayer. In other words, to want to pray is to feel related to someone outside one’s boundaries. Our biological relatives and friends are the ones whom we consider to be immediately outside us and we turn to them in times of need but ultimately they all point to God who is the culmination of all human seeking for support. This leads us to the understanding of prayer as the being of the person than what he or she utters in words or in silence. To pray is to be truly present to God as He is ever present to us. In his book on prayer, Swami Abhishiktananda, (Fr. Henri Le Saux, OSB) one of the pioneers of the ashram movement in India writes: “Everyone by the very fact that he exists is already in the presence of God. To exist at all, to be a human being, to be this particular human being is only possible because of this presence.” Hence to live in constant prayer is nothing else than living consciously in the actual presence of God.

Among earthly creatures, the human person alone has the privilege of being aware of this divine presence and of responding personally to it by offering to God in return the same gift of being present to him. The Trinitarian life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit consists absolutely in being totally present to one another while remaining distinct as persons. Our calling as human beings is an invitation to participate in this presence of the three persons to one another and to discover the cause of our own presence to one another within the human community. This dynamism of relationship with God and our fellow human beings uplifts us to the level of God and enables us to experience ourselves as prayer in essence.

The metaphor of the vine used by Jesus in the 15th chapter of John’s gospel is of particular significance in relationship to prayer because it gives us an insight into what prayer truly is. There has often been a grave misunderstanding about prayer as a means by which we get our desires expressed and fulfilled. However, essentially prayer is not an activity a human person engages in to feel related to God. It is rather an awareness that instills the realization that we are always in touch with God whether we are conscious of it or not. Jesus is God who became man in history but who reveals himself today in every human person and relates to everyone as the vine plant towards its branches, supplying steadily its life force to all of them. We might call prayer an awakening to the truth of our relatedness to Him and bringing to our conscious awareness our concrete existence here and now. We thus become aware of our circumstances and the demands of the present moment. We realize from the parable of the vine and the branches that at no situation of ours we are totally left to ourselves for the Lord affirms definitively: “Apart from me we can do nothing.”(Jn.15:5). However, it is insufficient that our mind knows this truth, but rather it must become an experience of our life too. We get a firsthand experience of it when we become conscious of our breath. We grasp the truth that the life force that passes into our body continuously arises from outside ourselves and has its source in God Himself. The life sap that Jesus speaks of in the life of the vine plant is nothing else but Jesus Himself present and acting within us through our body, mind and spirit. It gives us an insight into the relationship of love that exists between us and Jesus. This is what constitutes the essence of prayer for every Christian. Do we Christians recognize the truth of the metaphor of the Vine and the branches as indicative of the intrinsic relationship of union that is actively present between Jesus and us in our human existence on earth? Unwittingly most people live as though God is still apart from them and requires to be alerted through prayer exercises as when a Hindu devotee sounds the temple bell on beginning his or her prayer. This type of attitude deprives prayer of its vitality and strength because it remains a feeble human effort at communicating with God who is apparently indifferent to our situation in life. Since God is Spirit and remains invisible and unreachable to the senses, we suppose him to be absent altogether unless we positively invoke him. True prayer, on the other hand, is becoming conscious in our conscious mind to a presence that is all the time pervading our being. This turning to our inner state of being is not possible unless supported by grace. Our human nature naturally keeps us turned to our outer selves. Hence everyone has to be asking like the Apostles, “Lord, teach us to pray!” It is only the Holy Spirit who can set us on the road to prayer. As St. Paul tells us in the letter to the Romans, “The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness for we do not know how we ought to pray but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs that words cannot express. And he who searches the hearts knows the desires of the Spirit praying for the holy ones, for he prays according to the will of God” (Rom.8:26-27).

The fundamental concern of prayer is to be attuned to the will of God. There cannot be two wills seeking for domination. The divine will ought to prevail at all times as God knows best and cares as no other. This is possible to the one who realizes that there is no distance between us and God.  St.Julian of Norwich who lived in England in the 14th century affirmed, “Between God and ourselves there is no between.”  However, this truth does not find many takers in practical day to day life. Everyone is too conscious of his or her identity and is desperately striving to assert it. Unfortunately, only the enlightened ones know that they do not know who they really are. Sri Ramana Maharshi, a Hindu sage who lived at Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu during the first half of the 20th century, invited all who came to him seeking spirituality to explore themselves and find out who they were. This discovery of oneself is not an intellectual pursuit but surrender to the Presence within; it leads to the discovery of the actual Doer apart from the apparent doer of all actions. This discovery ends in an immense spirit of freedom that is assured to all who are set free by truth. (Jn.8:32). The hard truth about ourselves is what Jesus said about himself, “I and the Father are one” (Jn.10:30). The deep core of our being is only Christ as Scripture testifies to our being made in the image of God. It is Christ alone who is the visible image of the invisible God (Col.1:15). Salvation consists in our being transformed into that image in which we were born. But as long as a situation of conflict exists within us of seeking an identity separate from God, one cannot enjoy perfect peace within. As Jesus told St. Catherine of Siena, “Do you know who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you will be blessed and the enemy will never deceive you. I am He who is and you are she who is not.” (St. Catherine of Siena, School of faith). Prayer is that state of being in which one feels the need for someone higher than what one is familiar with. Prayer is the groaning we experience within of wanting to be free from the oppression of our little self. If we let go of that struggle, Christ the Vine plant will take care of our needs as best as He knows. (Mt.6:8)

We humans are not in this world to pursue a plan of our making. There is a destiny marked out for everyone and the manner of attaining to it as well. It is part of the overall master plan for the human race in which each person has something definite to contribute. In making this contribution, the element of freedom is present in each individual to cooperate with God or deny him that. This accounts for the conflicts going on in human existence and in society. Everyone wants to feel master of oneself and to take credit for every step he or she takes in life. Little is anyone aware that God is personally involved in the whole conduct of our human life from beginning to end. However, He is not a remote controller who makes use of our talents to get his work done. Rather it is his will that we grow into the realization of the active presence of God within and yield ourselves to his power of love in total freedom.

With all the experience humanity has gathered over the years about the workings of grace, the delusion that each human being is accomplishing something in life or failing to do so has come to be accepted. Hence praise and blame are attributed to oneself, others or circumstances, with little awareness of the role of grace in all matters that concern human life. However, it does not thereby imply that human persons are only puppets with no responsibility. They are free and active agents in their growth and transformation. The mysterious working of grace in a person who allows the divine within him or her to move according to his will experiencing no hindrance from selfish ambitions or desires is not to be played down. Spiritual life, therefore, is not a matter of following certain moral principles and ethical norms. Even religions promote this concept that what matters is living uprightly and hurting nobody. Christ did not ask his disciples to follow an ideology but to follow him and to love as he loved. Salvation is not synonymous with personal achievement. It has everything to do with the relationship of love and faith one enters into with God who is a Person. Nevertheless, this relationship is quite different from human relationships as the latter are often based on physical, psychological and emotional factors. However, human relationships which take into account divinity in the other rises to the level of what happens between humans and God. Communication takes place not only at verbal or thought level but also to grasping the person as he or she is in God. Communication then turns to communion. It is prayer that awakens the divine in oneself which helps one to recognize that the rest of creation too is part of him/her.

When external expressions of communion cease, silence ensues and prayer turns into contemplation. In the words of Teresa of Avila, “Contemplative prayer is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” In the words of the Carthusian monk Guigo II, “Reading is an encounter with the word of God, meditation seeks the hidden meaning of this word and prayer is the turning of the heart to God, and contemplation occurs when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself so that it tastes the joy of everlasting sweetness.” In the words of the St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, it is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus. When there is an extended pondering of the different aspects of God’s presence and activity it is called meditation whereas a simple gazing with our attention fixed lovingly upon just one or two aspects, it is contemplation. In acquired contemplation, human efforts are predominant whereas in infused contemplation one’s mind and heart are directly and powerfully influenced by God in a way that human effort by itself cannot achieve. Well, when all is said and done, prayer boils down to the bliss of being aware that we are aware of our being ever in the Trinitarian God and He in us.


Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt

(Benedictine Hermit)




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