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Silent Prayer

 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

Most of us learned to pray with words, by which I mean we spoke our prayers. Because language is how we were taught to communicate with each other, why would we not also communicate with God in the same way? It makes sense, and nothing I say after this point is intended to belittle or discourage the saying of spoken prayers. There are other types of prayer, however, that one may find comforting and effective, depending on the need. Silent prayer is one such type of prayer for me.

I have heard various estimates of how much of our communication with each other is actually transmitted by the words we use. A common estimate is about 10%, meaning approximately 90% of the communication received is non-verbal – body language, tone of voice, facial expression, attentiveness, etc. If I tell you that I love you while I am looking at my cell phone, what message do you receive? Certainly not one of love or devotion. The words lose their literal meaning because my non-verbal behavior is inconsistent with what comes out of my mouth. Could the same be true with God – that the words we use in prayer falter when our attitude and body language are not consistent with our words?

I receive regular reminders that I should speak less and listen more (for good reason, no doubt). When I interrupt or say something flippant in an attempt to lighten the mood or redirect a conversation, I send the message that I am not engaged with what is being said. Regardless of whether that is my conscious intent, regardless of what words I use, regardless of my body language, that is the message that will be received. The point is that what we communicate and the words we use are often very different, whether we are talking to a friend, a significant other, or God.

While God, no doubt, is interested in what we have to say, I believe God already knows. The Bible tells us that God knows what is in and on our hearts, probably better than we know. Certainly, one of the benefits of spoken prayer is simply the exercise of putting what is on our minds into words – not for God’s sake, but for ours. Sometimes the very act of putting feelings into words helps define what is troubling us and may even suggest a course of action. On the other hand, perhaps God has a message for us — one we cannot receive until we stop talking and listen. Thus, the importance, at least for some of us, of incorporating silent prayer into our prayer practice.

In my experience, listening for a message from God is different than hearing a message from a friend. I, personally, have never heard God speak in words or with a human-like voice. Opening our ears to God is more like assuming a responsive stance that opens us to God’s guidance. Again, in my experience, an occasional short period of waiting to hear from God is not likely to produce anything useful, nor do messages from God necessarily come at the time we seek them. It is not that God is not willing to communicate with us. The problem is that our distractedness prevents us from being able to receive God’s communications. I find God’s messages arriving as inspirations while I am going about my daily activities. Sometimes God speaks through an inspired thought that enters my head, sometimes it’s an inspired meaning from a scripture passage, sometimes it’s in something I read or hear from a friend. I believe a regular assumption of a silent, receptive posture for extended periods – 20 minutes at a time, once or twice a day – helps orient something within us toward receiving an occasional divine message.

Sitting in the presence of God in silence is more of a communion than a conversation. Saying a prayer with words is doing prayer; silent prayer is being prayer. Both are useful and important. To use only one method is like praying with one eye open. The technique of silent prayer native to Christianity, dating back many centuries, is called Centering Prayer. You can download a free copy of my Intro to Centering Prayer at this link: https://lifeworshipnotes.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/intro-to-centering-prayer.docx

Because God is non-verbal for most of us, finding non-verbal ways to commune with God are essential in establishing a two-way relationship where we seek to listen and not simply to be heard.

This is the 20th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Keeping Silence

 Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 27:9

The late Father Thomas Keating, a pillar in contemporary contemplative life, wrote, “God’s first language is silence.”1 In the creation story told in the first verses of Genesis, the author describes God as speaking creation into being: “And God said, ‘Let there be…’”. This is the Word of God, the originating impulse for everything that is, and this Word continues to be spoken in absolute silence. And so we must be silent to hear it. I daresay the most common experience we have of God is silence. We ask a question in prayer and receive silence. We cry out in desperation and hear silence. We climb a mountain in order to connect with the divine and hear only a deep, vast silence. While there are some who occasionally report receiving an auditory message from God, for the vast majority of us, God is silent.

Silence, however, is far from a non-answer, nor is it evidence of being ignored. If life grows out of silence, we know there is an awesome power residing within it. When a response to an inquiry of the divine is silence, it is an invitation to delve into a deep reflection on the question. Focused meditation is one way to receive insight. Sometimes, however, the formation of the response occurs subconsciously, as if in silence. I often find that insights come when I am not actively seeking them, as I go about my daily activities.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Everett, told the class that we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen more and speak less. It is trivial and cliché, perhaps, but important. One of the hardest lessons in a committed relationship is the inestimable value of strategically keeping one’s mouth shut and listening. Obviously, to do so requires our willingness to be silent. The same is true in our relationship with God. Does our constant internal chatter combine with the drone of the world around us to separate us from a genuine experience of others, including God, in silence? I believe it does.

In general, we are uncomfortable with silence. Indeed, it is hard to find a quiet place in which to engage with silence because we live in a noisy world. Extended periods of silence may seem like missed opportunities to catch up on the latest gossip, activities of friends and family, or entertainment. Most of us fear silence because of the uncomfortable vacuum it creates. Awkward pauses in conversation send our minds into overdrive, searching for something to say. Receiving the silent treatment from a partner can be agonizing. Silence is uncomfortable because it puts us in a situation of not knowing – not knowing what the other is thinking, not knowing what to say, not knowing what we do not know. It creates internal tension with its unusual auditory void. The tension comes from our unfamiliarity with silence. We are forever describing our life experience in words, both to others and to ourselves, and those very descriptions separate us from the silence within which the experiences arise.

We often confuse the silence of inactivity with the deep silence from which God creates. In other words, we cannot simply turn off the television and our mobile devices and expect to find silence. Silencing the noise from our external world is one thing; silencing our internal world is the greater challenge. Striving only for external silence is like praying with one eye open – we are not fully committing ourselves to the depth of silence from which God works in and through us. It is through the latter type of silence that we find entry into the rich moments of our lives, being present to the creative potential and creating reality happening at all times and in all places. True silence provides a blank slate from which to co-create our lives with God, which is both frightening and exhilarating.

Entering a state of internal silence is a skill we can develop with practice. A foundational tool is Centering Prayer,2 which is a method of praying silently. By keeping silence, as the author of Deuteronomy writes, we have the opportunity to experience God. Jesus referred to this as entering the kingdom of God.

This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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  • Thomas Keating, Intimacy With God. Crossroad Publishing, New York. 1994, p. 175.
  • See my Life Note from December 20, 2018 for an overview of the practice of Centering Prayer. Resources are also available at ContemplativeOutreach.org.

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Contemplative Practices, Part 1

Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 1 Timothy 4:15

I frequently make references to contemplative practices without describing what they are. I will describe a few of the practices that are a part of my daily routine. Before I do so, however, I need to issue two cautions:
1. While most contemplative practices are relatively simple and can be self-taught, I     recommend learning them from a teacher or experienced practitioner. There are nuances to the practices that are easily overlooked in self-teaching, resulting in an ineffective practice.
2. One of the ways contemplative practices aid in spiritual growth is by opening a channel from our subconscious levels of being to our consciousness awareness. While this is subtle and slow enough for most of us to process without difficulty, for some people a flood of difficult memories and unresolved experiences may ensue. If this happens, discontinue the practice and seek professional assistance.

Several years ago I felt a deep need to experience the presence of God in my life instead of just reading another book about it. Contemplative practices are a way to integrate our bodies, our physical being, into our spiritual work. These practices are not about adding more stuff to our days or reading more books faster. They are about slowing down and going deep, entering a moment or a narrative and experiencing what it has to offer. One of my teachers suggests that if we spend 10 hours a week reading, we should spend one of those hours on a single page, paragraph, line, or thought.

I utilize the two practices I describe below every day. One is a form of prayer — Centering Prayer, and one is a method of study – Lectio Divina (pronounced Lex’-ee-oh Dah-vee’-na). Many other practices are available and useful, and I will describe a couple more next week. These include (but are not limited to) walking meditation, yoga, certain forms of exercise, meditation, sacred dance, chanting, and many variations of prayer.

Centering Prayer. This is a form of silent prayer, where we seek to quiet the internal dialogue that runs non-stop in our minds. The sole purpose is to sit in the presence of God. We are not seeking answers, enlightenment, or comfort. We do not submit our petitions to God. We simply consent to be in God’s presence. Here is the process:
1. Select a “sacred word” of one or two syllables that will symbolize your consent to God’s presence and action within you. I often use “Be still.” Use whatever word seems appropriate to you to symbolize your willingness to consent to God’s presence.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, take a few deep breaths and silently introduce your sacred word.
3. When thoughts arise, as they will, repeat your sacred word to renew your intent to consent quietly to God’s presence. Allow the thoughts to pass away as you say your sacred word.
Two, twenty-minute sessions of centering prayer each day are recommended, although shorter periods can be helpful, too.

Lectio Divina. This is a four-step method for studying sacred texts, like the Bible. The intent is not to see how much of the text one can get through and how quickly, but to see how deeply one can enter and experience one section of the text. I often select a book of the Bible, reading it from beginning to end, one paragraph at a time, one day at a time. Here is the process:
1. Read the selected passage slowly and aloud. This allows one’s body to hear the words instead of just thinking the words. Listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you.
2. Read the passage a second time and reflect on what touches you about it. Enter one or more of the characters – what are they thinking, feeling, or experiencing? Consider journaling your thoughts.
3. Read the passage a third time and respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and/or what it calls you to do. This step is a call to action – what action in my life is this passage calling me to?
4. Read the passage a fourth time and rest in silence.
Additional information and resources for these and other practices is at http://www.contemplativeoutreach.com.

Contemplative practices are not about getting from here to there but are about delving more deeply into the here and now – wherever we are, whatever our situation, at this very moment. Next week I will provide an overview for a couple of additional practices.

This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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