There’s a common way of thinking about prayer, represented by the acronym, “ACTS”: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Derived from the structure of Jesus’ prayers, I find it very helpful to ensure my prayer does not turn into a laundry list of requests to God. However, until recently I always had a difficult time knowing what it meant to adore God. Was it to feel awe for Him? Was it just to say, “I praise you!” as King David does in Psalm 145? The reason this was so difficult for me, and the reason Christians end up seeing prayer as a therapy session or Magic 8-Ball consultation, is that we think ourselves capable of too much. We think that we can bring God to mind, in all His infinite greatness, and will ourselves to submit to Him.
The problem is that humans are physical beings. It’s not easy for humans to love something that they’ve never seen or felt. It’s often difficult for us to feel affection for those suffering on the other side of town, much less for an incomprehensible God.
Aristotle’s theory of the intellect helps to explain this difficulty. Aristotle, and his intellectual successor Aquinas, argued that the only way we think is by making images in our head, what he called “phantasms.” Phantasms are internal, visual representations of material reality. The mind works by abstracting from these particular images into more universal conclusions. Understandably then, it is easy enough for the mind to covet material possessions or feel awe for other humans. But it is difficult for it to worship an unseen God.
Thankfully, God foresaw this problem. Given that humans can think only by way of phantasms, we need a physical starting-point for our phantasms to latch onto. Romans 1 tells us that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” This is a straightforward way then to adore God—to contemplate Him through His creation.
Yet all these signs of God’s “eternal power and divine nature”—images of God—are not God. The things which our phantasms represent are themselves mere images of Someone still greater. But Jesus’s incarnation brought God into the realm of the visible. His life was lived out in the sight of many, showing the goodness of material existence as he took on a body and became accessible to our senses. What could be a higher use of our sense of sight than to have seen Jesus Himself in the flesh?
In fact, there is a long tradition of incorporating mental images of Jesus’ life in Christian prayer. In Eastern Orthodox prayer, icons play a significant role, seen by many as a visible “window to heaven” through which we can begin to contemplate eternal, invisible reality.
In the Western tradition, there is another practice which takes seriously the embodied nature of humans. Jacques Philippe speaks of it in his book Time for God, “Every aspect of [Jesus’s] humanity, each of his characteristics, even the smallest and most hidden, each of his words, deeds, and gestures, every stage of his life from his conception in Mary’s womb to his Ascension, brings us into communion with God the Father if we receive it in faith” (Time for God, II, 5).
For Philippe, we cannot fully grasp Jesus’ divinity, but His humanity is accessible to us through the testimony of Scripture. How should we access the humanity of Christ? Picturing ourselves in His presence, talking to him, walking with him, observing firsthand the scenes of the Gospels. Teresa of Avila further explains this method:
“The soul can picture itself in the presence of Christ, and accustom itself to become enkindled with great love for His sacred Humanity and to have Him ever with it and speak with Him, ask Him for the things it has need of, make complaints to Him of its trials, rejoice with Him in its joys and yet never allow its joys to make it forgetful of Him. It has no need to think out set prayers but can use just such words as suit its desires and needs. This is an excellent way of making progress, and of making it very quickly; and if anyone strives always to have this precious companionship, makes good use of it and really learns to love this Lord to Whom we owe so much, such a one, I think, has achieved a definite gain.” (Autobiography, Ch. 12)
As St. Teresa describes, to draw near to God we can acquaint ourselves with the embodied life of Christ. As Jesus tells us, “Whoever has seen me has seen the father” (John 14:9). Teresa challenges us to read the Gospels not just as an observer, but as a participant. We can picture ourselves as Peter, hearing the rooster crow after betraying his God; as a shepherd, cradling the baby Jesus; as a Roman soldier, watching Mary’s pain at the foot of the cross.
I don’t mean to suggest this as a replacement for an existing life of prayer. Traditionally, this form of contemplative prayer is the culmination of both verbal prayer, and meditation on God’s word. The complementarity of these three types of prayer recognizes that we need God’s help to worship Him as we aspire to. But I think that many Christians encounter difficulty proceeding beyond simple supplications from God, and end up stopping their growth in prayer prematurely.
Ultimately, our senses are meant to aid us in drawing near to God. The end of prayer, then, is not just God’s blessings, but His love. King David writes, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you” (Psalm 63:3). This loving response to God’s love for us is what it means to “adore” God.
Psalm 37:4 ties love for God with our supplications to Him, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” As we grow in love for God, He will shape our requests so that they are in line with His will. Thus, adoration is not a nebulous sentiment, but a continuous quest for unity with God, the One in Whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
St. Patrick represents St. Teresa’s practice well in this pithy prayer, which he wrote for courage in the face of Ireland’s pagan king:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet and in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. (trans. Cecil Frances Alexander)
Bryce McDonald is a senior in Leverett House studying Philosophy.