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14. Prayer and Contemplation

John indicates in his Gospel that Christians can pray in a new way. After Jesus' resurrection the Father will grant whatever they ask for in his name (15, 16). Jesus will not need to intercede for them, for the Father himself loves them (16, 26-27). Having received the gift of the Spirit (7, 39) they will be able to offer the kind of worship he really wants: a worship in Spirit and in truth. "God is Spirit and those who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in truth" (4, 23-24). What about our Christian prayer?

Thanks be to God, there are many people today who have discovered the importance of prayer. They want to learn the art of praying. So they go round seeking a guide, someone who can show them how to go about prayer. Implicit in their search is often the conviction that prayer is a technique, a question of know-how, a set of practical rules that produce results. The first discovery they need to make, in many a case, is that prayer is nothing of the sort, that prayer is something far more basic: an attitude, a relationship to God, a way of being rather than a practice.

John's Gospel shows this very clearly. Us main purpose is to proclaim who God is and how we can relate to him. Since prayer is an expression of this relationship we might expect tips and guidelines on 'how to pray' in every single chapter. Is this not what Allah is supposed to have done through the Qur'an and through the normative tradition (hadith) that comes down from Mohammed? But we find nothing of this nature in John: no recommended formulas (not even the 'Our Father*!) no prescriptions about times or places or posture, no hints on what to do or what to avoid, no liturgical rubrics for common worship. If prayer were a matter of externals, we would have to conclude that John has no interest in it,

But,as ! said before, since John wants us to relate to God in a new way, teaching us how to pray is essential to him. And, if 1 understand him well, almost everything he says concerns the scope of Christian prayer. What he wants to release in us is the ability to pray as only Christians can pray. When this 'release', this discovery, has happened to us, everything else will follow by itself. But to help us grasp what he says, let us first learn about prayer from the human sciences.

Parental Influences

A historical study of religion shows that there are two principal patterns of religious experience. The first is a merging in God as the Source of our Being; the second is an encounter with God as the Totally Other. Nature religions tend to favour the first approach. God is perceived as a mystery underlying the whole of reality as we know it. He is the "immanent ground and operative principle of all being".(1) We try to unite ourselves to God partly by purifying our own imperfect notions, partly by partaking in sacred images: by climbing God's mountain or bathing in God's sacred river; or simply by honouring the symbol that mediates God's presence. In its highest forms this approach leads to mysticism. Prophetic religions, on the other hand, present God as a Person who reveals a message and imposes his commands. By his word and his divine will he forces us to either accept or reject his lordship. His revelation comes through human mediators and addresses itself to concrete human realities. God is expe­rienced as the unexpected, the totally other, the one to whom the believer submits in an act of obedience and surrender.(2)

Although either the one or the other may be more congenial to a particular religion, we frequently find both approaches at the same time. The two forms of religious experience are contrary poles which constantly attract and repel each other. Islam for example is very much a prophetic religion. Yet we find in its bosom, and almost in revolt against it, the mystical search of Sufism. There seems to be a psycho­logical reason for this inherent tension.

Our first experience as a child is the embrace of our mother. As we lie in her womb or suck her breasts we receive warmth, security and satisfaction. Psychologists call this the oral phase and characterise the experience as a participation in the oceanic oneness of universe. It gives us the basic trust we needfor life, trust in ourselves and in others. Even when the mother is gradually withdrawn, we retain the original experience so that we can face the reality of living confidently. The same experience forms the psychological foundation on which and through which we can respond to the mystery of God. By our basic trust we can again experience participation in oceanic oneness, this time as a mystical approach to reality. Just as dolls and toys function as substitute mothers in our early life, so images and symbols can be the substitute "breasts" through which we feel one with the "mother" of ultimate reality.(3)

In the genital or oedipal phase we have another basic experience. Through the face, voice and word of our father we learn our identity as a separate person. It is a step to becoming adults. We discover the otherness of other persons. We learn to see ourselves as distinct. We also acquire our super-ego, our conscience, which will guide us throughout life. Here, too, there are consequences for our religious awareness. The expe­rience of the 'father' releases in us the possibility to respond to the prophetic pattern of religion.

Both forms of religious experience have their roots in crucial stages of our psychological growth. That is why they come so naturally to us and why we usually feel the need of both the one and the other. The psychological root does not cause the religious experience, as is sometimes asserted by agnostics. God would then be purely imaginary: a fictitious father or mother figure. No, God is real, but the forms of our relationship to him are transferred from our early human experience onto him, not unlike the transfer of our basic trust in our mother, or our respect for our father, to other people. (4)

Prayer of Response

After this somewhat lengthy digression, we may now turn back to John's Gospel. In what category does it place the Christian experience of God? The first overwhelming impres­sion is that John presents Christianity as a prophetic religion. The Father speaks a word and reveals his will. Jesus approaches us as the Father's ambassador. He comes with the reassuring message that the Father loves us and recognises us as his own dear children. Our Christian experience of prayer will therefore be a prayer of response, a prayer of accepting God's gifts and of submitting to his will. In response to the proclamation of God's word, Christian prayer will be vocal, explicit: praising and thanking God for revealing himself as the Other and for making us what we are.

Some theologians have characterised this form of prayer as an "I-Thou" relationship.(5) We have discovered God as an overpowering and all-loving "Though." He makes us an "I." He gives us our identity. This relationship is, indeed, well illus­trated in Jesus'highpriestly prayer (17, 1-26). Throughout the prayer Jesus manifests how he owes his identity to the Father. The Father gives him his name (17, 11), loves him (17, 24), entrusts him with his mission (17, 4), supplies the authority needed (17, 2), attracts disciples (17, 6.9) and gives him glory (17, 24). It expresses dependence, but also self-identity. The Son glorifies the Father in return (17, 1.5) and can say, "All I have is yours; all you have is mine" (17, 10).

This form of prayer finds expression in the public prayer of Christian liturgy. We address the Father though the Son. We hear his word and receive his gifts. It is also found in those personal moments of prayer when we consciously address God as the loving Other: when we give him thanks, ask for his favours, promise obedience to his will and submit ourselves to his guidance. While we pray to him we are aware of the fact that his love recreates us; that he treats us like his own sons and daughters, yes like successors to Jesus as we will see later.214 But this is not the only aspect of Christian prayer.


If we were to read John's Gospel only superficially, we might interpret it entirely as prophetic in character. But this is far from the truth. After receiving our identity from the Father, we are invited to move closer to him in unmistakeable mystical union.

The oneness we are called to is a real mutual embrace with God, mediated through union with Christ. Although the term 'Father' is maintained in the Johannine text for the sake of consistency, the more natural appellation for God in this context would have been 'Mother.' To bring this out I have substituted 'Mother' for 'Father' in the following representative passages.

"Mother, may they be in us as you are in me and I am in you.... I in them and you in me, so that we all may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and that you love them as you love me" (17,21.23).

"On that day you will know that I am in my Mother and that you are in me, just as I am in you" (14,20).

"My Mother who is life sent me and through her I live also. In the same way whoever eats me will live through me" (6,57).

The purpose of Jesus' coming is participation with God in a communion that goes beyond mutual knowledge and mutual affection. It is an indwelling a sharinz of life, a submersion in the other without losing one's identity.(6)

Jesus can mediate this union precisely because he is not only a prophet, but an image and a symbol. Seeing Jesus we see the Father. Joining ourselves to Jesus we lose ourselves in the Father. He is the vine, we are the branches. By remaining united to Jesus, we remain in the Father's love (15,1-10). He is the new manna, the bread from heaven who communicates divine life to us by having us eat his flesh and blood (6,53-58). This is not the approach of prophetic religion, but of participation with the divine through sacred symbols. It is the search of mystical union with the "mother" of all, with ultimate reality.

All created things are filled with numinosity. All are, to some extent, symbols pointing beyond themselves, revealing a glimpse of what ultimate reality must be like. All creatures are images that reflect more lasting and perfect values than they themselves possess. This is the basis of our natural religious experience when we reflect on the created world. By experiencing the existential limit of things, we are somehow touching the transcendental that lies behind it.(7) But if ordinary creatures already allow us to reach out to ultimate reality beyond them, how much more Jesus who is the image par excellence, the Son, the great sacramental symbol uniting us to God. Christian mysticism thereby both continues and perfects the search for union of natural religion. (8)

Such Christian mysticism is found as a necessary component of ritual and liturgy, if these be properly understood. For liturgical practices are not magic rites, by symbols: images leading to contemplation, signs allowing the believer to participate in the divine, to somehow touch and experience the nearness of God. Words are not important here, but the gesture of reaching out and opening oneself to God. It is not what we say, but the act of immersing ourselves in the reality that is God.

Also our personal prayer will show this element of contemplation. It will relish periods of silence, of quiet awareness in closeness to God. It will seek withdrawal from everything that distracts to focus attention on God alone. In this it will very much resemble contemplative prayer in other religions. What is specific to Christian contemplation, however, is that not a natural image but the humanity of Jesus is central as our means to partake in the divine.(9)


Mature Christian prayer will show both aspects. It will be a prayer of response as well as a mystical quest. But there is much room for individual interpretation. Some may find the prophetic experience of God more congenial, while others will give more prominence to the dimension of contemplation. Church history shows a remarkable succession of spiritualities which all, more or less, fitted within the range of a genuine Christian experience of God.

What strikes me about Johannine spirituality is its ability to combine strong. almost contradictory, convictions in one harmonious view.(10) Remember what we have seen in previous chapters. The search for God in natural religions is good; yet we only know who God really is through Jesus. Jesus was a human being like us; yet in this man Jesus the Father was made visible to us. We meet God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and yet there is only One God. So here too we find two complementary approaches equally stressed; finding one's own identity by response to his Will; losing ourselves in him by sharing his Love.

For reflection. "Get up and walk"

A man suffering from paralysis was lying near the pool of Bethzatha. He had been ill for thirty-eight years and he desperately wanted to get well. Archeology reveals that the pool was probably part of a shrine to Aesculapius, the pagan god of health. Miracles were supposed to happen there and the man was hoping it would happen to him. It did, but not as he had expected. It came through Jesus (read 5,1-8)

I find this a beautiful little parable on prayer. We too may have hopes and dreams; but in actual fact we lie paralysed on the side of the pool of practices from which we expect a miracle. Only Jesus can help us. He does so by simply telling us, "Get up and walk!"

Is prayer a reality in my life? Not just saying prayers, taking part in ceremonies, but prayer itself? Is prayer an integral part of my thinking, my value system, my relationships?

Do I feel uninhibited when I express my thoughts and feelings to God? Can I say anything to him? Are spontaneous, personal prayers a natural part of the way I share in common Christian worship?

Am I conscious of the two aspects of Christian prayer: response and contemplation? How do they manifest themselves in me? Are there ways in which I can strengthen either or both ?

If Jesus were to talk to me about the way I pray, what would he say to me? Do I have some paralysis somewhere that needs healing? Do I realise that I can receive anything from the Father "in Jesus' name"? Shall I open my heart to him?


(1) S. RADHAKRISHNAN, The Hindu view of Life. London 1927, pp.24-25

(2) K.A.H.HIDDING, De evolutie van bet Qodsdiemtig bewustzijn, Utrecht 1965; H. FABER,"Wisselende patronen van religieuze ervaring", Tijdscbrigt voor Theologie 11 (1971) 225-248.

(3) E.H. ERIKSON, Identity, New York 1968; pp 96ff; H.FABER, Cirkeien om een gektim. Meppel 1972; W. VELDHUIS, Geloof en Ervaring Ambo, Bilthoven 1973, pp. 11-16.

(4) A. HARDY, The Divine Flame, Collins, London 19212. A. HARDY, Tbe Divine Flame, _ Collins, London 1966, pp.l56-175; The Spiritual Nature of Man, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1979, pp.l34-136. Hardy traces tbe two approacbes even furtber back in evolution. He relates tbem to two socia1 bonds rooted in animal nature: dependence on tbe motber and submissive attacbment to tbe dominant leader of tbe pack.

(5) The expression was coined by tbe Jewish tbeologian M. BUBER in I and Tbou , Carles Scribner's Sons, New York 1952

(6) M. VELLANICKAL, "Divine Immanence in St. John" Biblebhashyam 1 (1975) 312-332; J DUPUIS, "Christus und die -Erfahrung", Orientierung 41(1977 168 - 172; McPOLIN, "johannine Mysticism", Way 18 (1978) 25-35. For a traditio-critical analysis, see M.L. APPOLD, The Oneness Motif in the Fourth Gospel, Mohr, Tübingen

(7) The experiential theologian R GUARDINI expounds this beautifully in Die Sinne und die religiose Erkenntnis, Werkbund, Wurzburg 1950' Religion

(8) A good example of this continuity and perfection in Christ is given by Sister VANDANA. She compares 'water' as a symbol of the divine in Hindu mysticism with the images of 'water' in John. Waters of Fire, Christian Literature Society, Madras 1981

(9) "Jesus is the primary mediator of Christian religious experience"; G. SEGALLA, "L'esperienza cristina in Giovanni", Studia Patavina 18 (1971) 299-342. "The insistence that the union is Christologically mediated is the distinctive feature of the New Testament writings", D.L. Mealand, "The Language of Mystical Union in the Johannine Writings," Downside Review 95 (1977) 19-34.

(10) The transcendent God is balanced by the fullness of the Word, the unknown unity of the Father by the plurality of the Son. E. OSBORN, "Negative and Positive Theology in John", Australian Biblical Review (1983) 72-80.

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