The season of Lent is a forty-day period of self-examination in preparation for Easter — in imitation of the forty days that Jesus spent in prayer and fasting in the desert, as recorded in this week’s Gospel Lesson. As part of our corporate Lenten discipline, you will notice that “The Sacrament of Silence” has been added to the order of worship following the sermon as a time “to reflect prayerfully in response to the spoken word.” We have intentionally added a practice of contemplative silence during Lent to have a communal time of reflection in which we are all invited to turn our gaze inward and to open ourselves to God’s Presence without even music to divide our attention. Most weeks during Lent this practice of silent prayer will last approximately one full minute. In contrast, we too often hear, “Let’s have a moment of silence” — then two seconds later…“alright, that’s enough.” However, on this first Sunday of Lent, I have intentionally shortened the length of my sermon because I want to invite us experience a full five minutes of silence together as a worshipping community.
Some of you may be feeling the impulse to make use of the emergency exit right now, so let me offer you some words of hope. One of the scariest parts about silence is that many of us have never been equipped with tools to help us feel comfortable experiencing silence. But there are many different Christian communities and traditions that regularly include periods of silent prayer in their weekly worship services that last anywhere from five minutes to twenty minutes, up to forty-five minutes, or even an hour or longer of silence. So, I know five minutes of silence is humanly possible; I’ve seen it! These communities are committed to the practice of silent prayer in response to some form of the conviction that if God is living and active, then it is important to create time and space to pay attention to what God is doing, to listen to what God is saying, and to discern God’s call. In short, we need to experience God directly, first-hand for ourselves. This Lent, I do no merely want to talk to you about the importance of God, silence, and prayer; instead, I want invite you to taste the fruit of contemplative prayer for yourself. Moreover, in addition to the importance of following Jesus’ practice of regular prayer, scientific studies are increasingly demonstrating that various practices of contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation significantly decrease stress, increase equanimity, and can even provide pain management.
I should also add that when I say that “God is still speaking” or talk about “listening to God,” I am not suggesting that you should prepare yourself to hear God speak to you in the voice of either James Earl Jones or Charlton Heston. If anything, scripture and tradition tell us that God much more frequently comes– as God did to the prophet Elijah — as “a still small voice,” or, as other translations say, as “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Mostly I invite you to let go of any anxiety or expectations you have about what five minutes of prayerful silence might be like and allow yourself to gently experience what it really is like. If you are comfortable, I invite you to make yourself comfortable in your seat. If you need to cough during the five minutes, cough. If you need to sneeze, sneeze. And if you hear someone cough or sneeze, let it go. At the end of the five minutes, you will hear a short piano meditation and we will transition into the celebration of Communion.
During the five minutes, distractions will naturally arise in your mind. That’s okay, too. Just acknowledge them, and gently return your focus to how God might be speaking to you. What habit might God be inviting you to give-up? What spiritual practice might God be calling you to take on? I invite you to let go temporarily of any preconceived notions of what you plan to do for Lent, and, at least for the next five minutes, simply listen for what thoughts and emotions God is stirring up in you. I invite you to sit with those thoughts and emotions and sift through them gently.
If you are comfortable, I invite you to close your eyes. With your feet flat on the floor and your hands resting in your lap, allow yourself to be relaxed but alert. I invite you to listen for God at the beginning of Lent.
Recommended Reading on the Practice of Contemplative Prayer
- Daniel Wolpert, Creating a Life With God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices (Upper Room Books 2003)
- Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cowley Publications 2004)
- Thomas H. Green, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings, Revised Edition (Ave Maria Press 2007)