Contemplative prayer — the prayer of sitting in silence, waiting in faith and trust on God — needs to be a daily practice. There are a number of reasons for this, but today I’d like to look at something I experience in my own prayer. I have to eat a little bit of humble pie to write this, because I’m admitting how poor I am at praying. But the truth is the truth. I need to pray in silence every day because, well, most days my silent prayer is not all that silent. Futhermore (and this is actually a bit more hopeful), the character of my silent prayer varies from day to day. I suppose that’s not so remarkable; after all, the character of my thoughts and feelings and outlook on life varies from day to day as well. I have good days and bad days, just like everyone else. And prayer, which after all is a discipline in which we seek to open our hearts and minds to the love of God, requires a basic authenticity — so our daily prayer ought to reflect the vagaries and whims of our day-to-day lives.
So, with all that in mind, I’d like to share with you a little bit about some of many flavors my silent prayer can take, from day to day.
Sometimes when I sit in silence, I’m not really very silent. No sooner than I sit down, get comfortable, and affirm my intention to be still and know God, my mind starts buzzing with distractions and to-do lists. Whatever movie I saw recently keeps playing through my head, or the book that I’ve been reading demands my attention. Then I remember my purpose for sitting there, and I return to gently tending to my breath, as a sign of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. But then I’m thinking about some emails I need to send out, or a check that must be written to avoid a late fee. Whoops — back to my breath. And so it goes for the duration of my sitting time.
Sometimes when I sit in silence, I encounter a similar dance between my thoughts and the silence, but during these times I find lovely, rich moments of sheer presence, between the chatter and the emotions. The silence is somehow more than just a respite between the words and the feelings that flitter through my awareness. It seems to open up into something larger, vaster, more spacious. It feels good. It seems to be suffused with light. And then I notice that it feels good, and I marvel at the light, and then chatter and the emotions are off and running again. Sometimes that sense of spacious presence appears only once or twice during my entire prayer time, and other times I seem almost effortlessly cognizant of that limitless beauty, suspended just beyond and beneath my internal drama.
Sometimes when I sit in silence I relax deeply. My breathing slows down, my body feels calm and comfortable, and while the mental chatter never seems to go away altogether, it does seem to slow down considerably. Whether my prayer time lasts ten minutes or a half an hour, it always seems to leave me refreshed, serene, comfortably at peace in my own skin. It feels about as good as getting a full body massage, or taking a nice warm bath after a long day of work. Of course, other times when I sit in silence I struggle to stay awake. My body is sleepy, and my prayer time, instead of chattery with internal dialogue, turns into a contest of wills, between my intention to pray and my desire to slumber.
Sometimes when I sit in silence my mind is buzzing with creative ideas. I come up with topics for this blog, or clever insights for whatever book I’m writing, or for a future book idea, or for a lecture I’ll be giving or a retreat I’ll be leading. The words keep flowing, but they don’t feel like distractions, they feel like inspiration. And I wonder if I should simply get up and go write, but when I make that choice, I never seem to find my way back to my prayer cushion, so I’ve learned to ignore that particular temptation. Still the creative juices keep oozing, and sometimes I manage to keep re-connecting with the silence at the heart of all that generativity, and other times I start ganging up on myself, arguing that if I don’t write down this or that idea right now, I’ll lose it forever.
Sometimes when I sit in silence I do what my Buddhist friends call “forgetting the instructions” — in other words, the distracting thoughts or powerful feelings or creative inspirations become so enticing, so appealing, that they “win” — and I forget why I’m sitting in silence; I’ve forgotten the instructions (which, for Christians, is to be still and know the presence of God). I simply wander off into my daydreams, and forget to return to the silence within my prayer. And then my timer chimes to let me know that my allotted time for prayer has ended. At that point, sometimes I feel guilty, like I’m really a loser when it comes to silent prayer; other times I feel angry, that I allowed myself to mess it up again, but on the days that I am the most kind and compassionate to myself, I simply feel humble, and I am reminded that I’m just not perfect, and I make mistakes, and when that happens the smartest thing to do is to forgive myself and resolve to do better next time.
Sometimes when I sit in silence it all really seems to click. I’ll still have the occasional stray thought or nagging feeling, but I more quickly remember to let it go and return to the silence within my breathing. And I more quickly notice the vastness and the light. And then I recognize that I am being comforted by a sense of the presence of God, and I feel like a very small part of a very large love, and it’s awesome and amazing beyond words. Other times though, there are times when I sit in silence that I am troubled by how absent God feels. Because I’m needy or I’m curious or I’m anxious, I am hungry for an experience of God. On those days, God seems absent, and I fret over that, because it’s not what I want. I forget that God’s presence is not measured by what we feel (or don’t feel) when we pray.
Sometimes when I sit in silence I seem to find a path through all of the above: a path which takes me beyond all the thoughts, all the feelings, the lust for a spiritual experience, and even the sense of calm or relaxation or light or Divine presence. All those things might arise, but then they just as easily fade away. In fact, even the sense of “I” disappears. There is no “I” experiencing God, or praying to God, or meditating, or whatever. Sure, my body sits still, my heart keeps beating, my lungs keep breathing. And thoughts flow through my awareness like butterflies frolicking in a cathedral, their wings glistening in the colored light from the stained glass windows. But “I” am not a subject, any more than “God” is an object. God and I are not merely in relationship, we are relationship. Prayer happens. And then the chime sounds, and with reverence I gladly bow.
And the next day, when I sit in silence, the “path” is nowhere to be found. I get great writing ideas or I forget the instructions or I struggle to stay awake.
Here is one final confession. The idea for this blog post came this morning, as I sat in my silent prayer. But at least I set the idea aside for a time, and waited until I was finished with my prayer before I came to my computer to write.
So there you go. I’m sure I have hardly exhausted all the many characteristics my prayer time can take on. And what about you? Have you noticed a quality in your silent prayer that is unlike anything I’ve reported here? If so, I’d love to hear about it.