As often as possible Jesus withdrew to lonely places for prayer.
As part of my taking requests for what to preach about over the summer, I got the request to talk about contemplative prayer. Or I prefer calling it “silent prayer.” “Contemplative” can make it seem complicated, and it’s not.
It’s simply about being still, and abiding in God’s presence, beyond words.
This is an ancient way of praying that can be very powerful and very healing for people. And it can also very challenging at times, in a good way. It is a practice, with some technique. But it’s not complicated. And anyone can do it, it’s not it’s only for nuns or monks, and it’s not like it’s only for quiet people or only for particularly holy people, whoever that it.
We now have a steady group on Monday that meets in our chapel at lunch hour for a “sacred silence sitting circle.” We just pray in a silent way together. And it’s been our practice during our Prayers of the People time at worship to have a period of silence at the end.
But what are you supposed to do with that silence? Especially if your brain keeps yammering on, you know, like it does. “How long is this going to take?” and “Jeeze, that guy’s breathing loudly… Did he just fall asleep?” or “Am I looking holy enough?” or “Oh, I can’t forget to tell so-and-so they need to bring this-and-that to such-and-such or that so-and-so doesn’t have to because…on and on and on.” And more than thoughts, when we sit quietly, deeper worries can come up or memories or fantasies can come up or very strong emotions. And we may think that doesn’t feel very prayerful and we’re doing a lousy job at praying. Then we get frustrated with ourselves, or frustrated with whole prayer thing.
That’s perfectly natural, and that’s actually part of the point, to notice what arises so we can pass through it.
The practice of silent prayer is based on a simple premise:
God is with us every moment – and more than that: “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves” – in the words of Augustine. “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves”
Our normal sense of self is usually mistaken about who we really are and who God really is. We create our identity based on surface level things – our name, age, appearance, family, work, our history, our sense of future, the scripts about who we are and who we aren’t that we are constantly rehearsing to ourselves.
But if we allow ourselves to go deeper than that – if we allow God to draw us deeper than that, then we discover that at the deeper roots of our being we are held by the Holy One, our God, who embraces all beings us so closely we dissolve into God’s great being.
In that we can place our deepest trust. The prayer practice then is the practice of exercising that trust, every moment, surrendering ourselves to God’s activity within us, rather than our own.
We don’t actually have to do anything. The practice is to just be with the intention of surrendering our being to the presence of God.
Now, at first, we may be able to hold that intention for just a moment, before our hearts and our minds stray to something else. So, the technique is to have a simple prayer word that represents for us our intention of surrendering our being to the presence of God.
When we notice that our minds and hearts have strayed, we just repeat that word, inwardly, to return to this basic intention, basic posture of surrender to God. What the word doesn’t have to be a big deal, because the word is not the point it’s the inner posture that it can remind you of. Whatever word works for you. “Holy” or “Jesus” or “Peace” or “Mercy” or “Grace” or “Yes” or a very short simple phrase, like “Here I am, Lord.” Whatever you feel is meaningful for you.
But again, the word itself is not important, it could just be a sound, or an image, if you’re a visual person. What is important is what it brings you back to when your mind and your heart stray, which it will.
It helpful in this to have a sense of grace toward ourselves – I for one can get frustrated when I feel like I’m not doing something as well as I want to – but this isn’t about us or about our effort. We can feel in it God’s grace toward us in this gentle but powerful and persistent beckoning that God makes to our deepest souls to draw us beyond our normal sense of scope of ourselves, out and down into communion with the great realm of God’s being, the source of all being.
That’s a way to practice of silent prayer. Simple. Ancient.
God is our refuge and strength a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved and though the mountains are shaken in the midst of the sea; Though the waters rage and foam and though the mountains quake at the rising of the sea…
Come then and see what the Holy One has done, what destruction God has brought upon the earth. God makes wars to cease in all the world. God breaks the bow and shatters the spear and burns the chariots in the fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ – Psalm 46
Prayer begins and ends with knowing that there is a much greater power at work than the storms and battles that rage both around us and within.
Any fear, any anger, any force within us or without is powerless before the eternal and abiding presence of the Holy One Beyond Name.
So in all things, through all things, whatever may arise:
Be still, And know That God is God
Be still And know That God is
Be still And know
When we hope for what is not before our eyes, then we wait for it with patience. So, also, the Spirit supports us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. – Romans 8:25-26
This past week our community in Walla Walla has been rocked by a horrific, violent murder of a dear member of our community. At a vigil earlier this week someone asked me with tears in her eyes, “How do I pray? How do I pray at a time like this?” I said, “Well, this is how I pray in a time like this. I fall to the earth and weep. I let my body collapse and cry out. I let the waves of heartbreak crash against the rocks. And then I am still, a pile of bones on the earth, knowing that in all this I am held by a Power much greater than the forces of the world.”
The Spirit supports us in our weakness, when we allow ourselves to be weak. We do not need to know how to pray. The Spirit draws us closer to God, with sighs too deep for words. And on the other side …
Let all joy be yours at all times in the universal sovereign. Again I repeat – let all joy be yours. Let your forbearing spirit be plain to everyone. The universal sovereign is near. Do not be anxious about anything; but under all circumstances, by prayer and entreaty joined with thanksgiving, make your needs know to God. Then the peace of God, which is beyond all human understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and thoughts in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:5-7
On the other side, is joy.
If we are still before God, can’t run away from those storms, those earthquakes, those battles … when we try to be still, we must face all that makes us unstill – all those things that that we may spend most of our waking time running away from.
Very difficult things can come to the surface, when we are in prayer available to the activity of God’s Spirit. Because in prayer we are surrendering our whole selves to God, entrusting ourselves into God’s care, we can be honest to ourselves and to God about some things that we keep closely guarded.
Here is the healing power of this practice. The more we are able to surrender to God’s care, the more we can become free of what keeps us from our deepest identity as a beloved child of the living God. Step by step we can give more and more to God
Then the peace of God, which is beyond all human understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and thoughts in Christ Jesus.
“Prayer – which asks, thanks, worships, and blesses – is the radiation, the breath and the warmth of the awakened heart: expressed in formulae of the articulated word, in the wordless inner sighing of the soul and, lastly, in the silence, both outward and inward, of the breathing of the soul immersed in the element of divine respiration and breathing in unison with it. – In the writings of an anonymous 20th century French Catholic monk:
(Delivered July 14, 2019, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg