MYSTICISM: Beholding The Lord by Richard J. Foster

Beholding The Lord by Richard J. Foster Deeply colored storm clouds in the evening sky

From Sanctuary of the Soul

The best contemplative tradition is often inclined to pass
on from listening to a tranquil beholding. 
(Hans Urs von Balthasar)

As we experientially learn the grace of recollection, we begin to move into the second step of meditative prayer, “beholding the Lord.”  What does this mean?  Beholding the Lord speaks of an inward steady gaze of the heart upon God, the divine Center.  We bask in the warmth of God’s presence.  We soak in God’s love and care.  The soul, ushered into the Holy Place, is transfixed by what she sees.

Two Ancient Witnesses

Perhaps the best way we can understand this step into meditative prayer is to hear the stories of witnesses of such an experience.  One such witness is the fourteenth-century English writer, Bible translator, and hermit Richard Rolle of Hampole.  What an intriguing person he was!  He studied at Oxford, learning Latin there.  He also learned about sin there; hence he left Oxford so he could reorder his priorities.  He fashioned a rough-and-tumble hermit’s habit out of his father’s rain hood and two of his sister’s tunics.  When his sister saw what he had done, she cried, “My brother is mad!  My brother is mad!”  Later, at a local church, after the Mass and with the celebrant’s blessing, Rolle mounted the pulpit and preached a sermon “of such sincerity and beauty that ‘the multitude could not refrain from tears,’ saying ‘they had never before heard a sermon of such virtue and power.'”

But now on to his experience of beholding the Lord.  Rolle witnesses that as he entered the gaze of the heart upon the Lord, he experienced intense heat around his heart as if it were actually on fire.  “It was real warmth too, not imaginary, and it felt as if (my heart) were actually on fire.  I was astonished at the way the heat surged up, and how this new sensation brought great and unexpected comfort.  I had to keep feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it!”

Once Rolle was certain there was no material cause for the sensation but that it was purely a gracious gift of God, he added, “I was absolutely delighted and wanted my love to be even greater.  “And this longing was all the more urgent because of the delightful effect and the interior sweetness which this spiritual flame fed into my soul.  Before the infusion of this comfort I had never thought that we exiles could possibly have known such warmth, so sweet was the devotion it kindled.  It set my soul aglow as if a real fire was burning there.”

Now, I imagine that few if any of us will ever have the physical sensations that Rolle experienced, but we all can seek after the gaze of the heart.

The second witness I bring to you is the seventeenth-century French aristocrat and mother, Madam Jeanne Guyon.  Guyon’s most famous disciple, François Fénelon, spread her teachings far and wide throughout France and beyond.  Guyon’s superb book, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, contains helpful teaching for us on the experience of beholding the Lord.

In learning to behold the Lord, Guyon teaches us to use scripture, but not in the way we learned in lectio divina.  Here the scripture is used to quiet the mind.  We begin, says Guyon, by reading a passage of scripture, but as we read, we pause.  Guyon explains, “The pause should be quite gentle.  You have paused so that you may set your mind on the Spirit.  You have set your mind inwardly – on Christ.”  We need to remember, explains Guyon, that we are not reading the scripture to gain some understanding but to “turn your mind from outward things to the deep parts of your being.  You are not there to learn or to read, but to experience the presence of your Lord!”

Once we sense the Lord’s presence, the content of what we have been reading has served its purpose.  We now hold our heart in God’s presence.  We do this solely and utterly by faith, says Guyon: “Yes, by faith you can hold your heart in the Lord’s presence.  Now, waiting before him, turn all your attention toward your spirit.  (The Lord is found only within your spirit, in the recesses of your being, in the Holy of Holies; this is where he dwells.  The Lord once promised to come and make his home within you.  He promised to there meet those who worship him and who do his will.  The Lord will  meet you in your spirit.)”

So, here in God’s presence we behold the Lord.  We are fully aware of God’s presence because, as Guyon teaches us, all outward senses have “become very calm and quiet.”  We are no longer focused on the surface thoughts of the mind; “instead, sweetly and silently, your mind becomes occupied with what you have read and by that touch of his presence.”

What?  Are we now to go back to the content of what we have read in scripture?  Well, yes and no.  It is not that we think about what we have read, explains Guyon; it is that we feed on what we have read.  Throughout we are to discipline our mind to be quiet before the Lord.  We are to allow our mind to rest.

This concept of feeding but not thinking is a bit beyond my lived experience.  But there is more.  Guyon’s next direction is the most important of all: “In this very peaceful state, swallow what you have tasted.  In this quiet, peaceful, and simple state, simply take in what is there as nourishment.”

Cracking Open the Door

I don’t know about you, but all this lofty talk leaves me a little breathless.  And overwhelmed.  I’m just hoping to make it through this week.  Perhaps you feel the same.  Often it seems like our meditations never get past our frustration over the unwashed dishes in the sink or the chemistry exam next week.  So what do we do?

Well, I do want to encourage us not to despair or to give up.  Instead, I would like to suggest three simple – perhaps I should say elementary – ways that can hopefully crack open the door for us onto the experience of beholding the Lord.

The first way is to be still in the presence of the reflected glory of God that we see in creation.  This is no infantile pantheism; rather it is a recognition that the created order, even though affected by the Fall, reflects something of the goodness and glory of God.  As Paul put it so well, “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

One of the reasons we love the creation so much is that it is always doing the will of the Father.  Tree and chipmunk, deer and hawk are all busy doing the will of God.  Sometimes after a day immersed in the guile and viciousness of human society, I will say to an old hiking friend, “Let’s hit the trail and see some of the will of the Father.”  Elizabeth Barrett Browning declared:

Earth’s crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

Often, especially when I am writing, I will take a break and hike in a nearby canyon.  I am accompanied only by my carved redwood walking stick and a water bottle.  In the springtime this canyon is filled with the sights and smells of columbine and larkspur, golden banner and Indian paintbrush.  In the winter, however, earth tones dominate.  Even the ponderosa pine is darker in winter, blending in with the browns of gamble oak and mountain mahogany.

The absence of leaf and flower makes the boulders of the canyon stand out in rugged relief.  They are always here, of course, but in the winter they fill the landscape like giant sentinels.  I like the rock – hard and durable.  Often I will brush my hand over one of the conglomerate boulders, studded with stones, all cemented together by ancient pressures.

Right after a good snow has fallen I like to hike down into the canyon alone.  Likely I will not see another Homo sapiens.  But I will hear the creek gurgling beneath the ice.  In a strange way its perpetual babble calms me.  No doubt other sounds will abound: chipmunk and squirrel scratching for food in the underbrush, and in the trees high above the call of hawk and jay, American goldfinch and dark-eyes junco.  I’m sure to find a great variety of tracks in the snow; a reminder that I have many more neighbors than I ever see or hear.

But it is the trees that capture my attention the most, and they lead me into complete silence.  It’s the patience of the trees – stately, quiet, laden with snow.  The trees give me a glimpse into the cosmic patience of God.  There among the trees I behold the Lord, the Creator of the trees.

A second way of entering the experience of beholding the Lord is by means of worship music.  For me music is often the language of beholding.  It is helpful if you can find music that metaphorically will take you from the Outer Court through the Inner Court and into the Holy of Holies (see Exodus 37–40).

Now, singing and worshiping are not in themselves beholding…but they are perhaps an entryway.  In beholding the Lord, music functions a little like Guyon’s teaching regarding the use of scripture.  As soon as the music brings us to the Mercy Seat, it has served its purpose.  At this point we leave the music behind and attend to the Lord.  Here we simply and purely behold the Lord.

I don’t want to insist on any particular kind or style of music.  “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” is the way the apostle Paul described it.  And this is sufficient for me.

I guess I do want to add one qualifier.  “Loud” and “excited” seldom draw us in.  Instead they stir us up and focus on surface emotions.  To be sure, there is a time for those experiences, but not here, not in beholding.  So I would suggest worship music that draws us inward rather than outward.  Beyond that you will, I am sure, find your way to the music that best embodies this experience for you.

A third way.  A simple way, really.  There are times we enter experiences that go deeper than human words can express.  The wise apostle Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words.”  And often there are inward yearnings that cannot quite be caught in human language.  For some the gift of tongues, or glossolalia, becomes a means through which our spirit may behold the Holy One of Israel.  At other times we enter what Saint Teresa of Ávila called “the prayer of quiet,” where all words become superfluous.  In silence we behold the Lord.  Words are not needed for there to be communion.  Most of all we rest in God’s “wondrous, terrible, gentle, loving, all-embracing silence.”

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