Today is a wonderful day to be silent.
If you have never taken time to simply “be still and know God” (Psalm 46:1), then I invite you to do so. Not some day — today. Find some time today to turn off the smartphone, unplug the television and the laptop, silence the iPod and iPad — and simply rest, gently, quietly, in silence before the mystery of God.
It’s the easiest thing to do, and it’s also one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. And that’s because as soon as we manage to silence all the sources of external noise in our lives — the mobile devices, the TV, etc. — most of us find that we come face to face with the incessant buzz of all the internal noise that forms the running commentary of our minds, the never-ending tape loop of interpretation, gossip, list-making, worrying, wondering, judging, criticizing, hoping, dreaming, fearing — what over the years has been called “distractions.” We all have them. In fact, Buddhists refer to the incessant chatter within as the “monkey mind.” How can we be still and know the presence of God, when our own brains won’t shut up?
Welcome to the world of silent prayer (also called contemplation or contemplative prayer). Walk gently into this world, and you will be invited into a place that can be profoundly peaceful and restful. For you see, between every distracting thought, every obsessive fear, every compelling feeling, is silence. The silence is there. Most of us just aren’t very skilled at noticing it, and we’ve been trained by our anxious, competitive, hyperactive culture to wallpaper over the silence with — you guessed it — our distracting thoughts and feelings.
But spiritual wisdom from all over the world calls us beyond our thoughts and feelings into the gentle silence that resides at the center of our hearts and the foundation of our minds. Since I’m a Christian, I’m going to offer a few quotations from the Bible. But you could find similar invitations to silence in the teachings of the Budda, or the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, or the Tao te Ching, or many other sacred writings. But to keep things simple, I just want to draw from the Bible.
I’ve already mentioned Psalm 46:10. But an even more compelling verse is Psalm 62: “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” Other translations say “My soul rests in God alone,” since the Hebrew word, dumiyyah, means both “silence” and “restful waiting.” Dumiyyah also appears in Psalm 65, in a verse that often gets mistranslated, thanks to an error that goes all the way back to the first Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. Translated literally (correctly), the first verse of that Psalm bluntly states, “Silence is praise to you, O God, in Zion.”
Silence is praise! This might be a hard concept for many Christians to embrace, since we have been brought up to associate praise and worship with singing, preaching, prayer, and exclamations of love. But the Psalmist understands that sometimes, the deepest praise of God means acknowledging that language is limited, and so it’s best to praise God with the heart rather than the mind, simply resting in silent love.
“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” proclaims the prophet Habakkuk (verse 2:20). Similar to that is one of my favorite verses, from the New Testament — Revelation8:1, where we read:
“When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”
When people ask me how long should they spend in silence before the loving mystery of God, I point to that verse. “If heaven could be silent before God for half an hour, maybe we should too.” Then sometimes they say they want a second opinion!
I’ll admit, when I first began the simple-yet-difficult practice of praying in silence, the thought of spending a half hour in silence before God made me nervous. But nowadays I find a half hour of silence to be wonderful. And that’s not because I have somehow managed to get rid of my distractions. On the contrary! The mind generates thoughts, just like the lung breathes, the heart beats, and the stomach digests. That’s its job. Contrary to what some people think, silent prayer is not about “emptying the mind” — for that is actually impossible. When spiritual teachers have used language of emptying (like Saint Romuald in the eleventh century, who said we should “empty yourself completely and sit waiting” in prayer), they are saying we should empty ourselves of our self-will, our need to be in control, our need to manage every aspect of our lives — including our relationship with God. God wants us to relax and allow the Holy Spirit to guide our prayer. One way to do that is by gently learning to rest in silence, letting thoughts and feelings come and go without getting too attached to them.
Over the centuries, many different techniques or methods of praying during silence have arisen. Early Christians of the third and fourth centuries who lived in the deserts of the Middle East found that reciting Bible verses was an excellent tool for keeping the mind from wandering during prayer. Eventually one of those Desert Fathers, John Cassian, recommended one verse in particular, from the Psalms: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Psalm 69:2, Douay-Rheims version). Still others suggested simply praying one word, such as the name of Jesus, entraining the name with the rhythm of the breath. Other prayer teachers developed what became known in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as the Prayer of the Heart: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.” In the middle ages, an anonymous English monk wrote a treatise called The Cloud of Unknowing which reaffirmed the idea of a single word, like “God” or “Love.” It’s a helpful way to pray, for it gives the mind something to keep it occupied, while allowing the heart to rest in the silence between and beneath the words. And when the mind wanders off (as it always does), the prayer word or scripture verse is there to bring us back to our intention: to be still and know God, for silence is praise.
Silence in heaven for half an hour! I love the thought. I hope and pray that there’s a half hour silence in heaven at least twice a day.
But the prayer of silence does not need to wait for heaven. Silence today! If a half an hour seems too daunting, go for fifteen minutes. Or five minutes. Just do it. Make time in your heart, your mind, your busy schedule, your life, for God. Give God the gift of your attention, and let God bless you with the restfulness that always exists in the silence (although we’re usually too distracted to notice). Do it today. And tomorrow. And the next day. Make silent prayer a daily habit. Be still… and know.
To learn more about Christian silent prayer (contemplation), you might enjoy the following books.
- Answering the Contemplative Call by Carl McColman;
- Beginning Contemplative Prayer: Out of Chaos Into Quiet by Kathryn J. Hermes;
- Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgealt;
- Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer by Richard Rohr;
- Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird;
- Open Mind Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating;
- Tools Matter: Beginning the Spiritual Journey by Mary Margaret Funk.