It’s hard for a five-year-old to stay quiet for any stretch of time. It’s also challenging to help children stay on topic while sharing their thanksgiving and requests during prayer each evening. So it’s another level of difficulty altogether to guide my youngest son in the silence of contemplative prayer when we pray together.
I aim to practice silent, contemplative prayer before God for at least 20 minutes each day. With my son, I’m lucky if I can even get 30 seconds of quiet contemplation with him. I believe this is well worth the investment.
Contemplative prayer is a prayer of the heart, a silent adoration of God. It’s a waiting that is rooted in trusting and abiding by faith without demanding spiritual experiences. The foundation of contemplative prayer takes the scriptures seriously: God’s Spirit already present in each of us, so a time of silent prayer before God trusts that no manifestations from God are necessary for God to be present.
The “prayer” of contemplation comes from God’s work within us. Taking cues from the desert fathers and mothers as well as centuries of monastics and mystics, contemplative prayer is a tradition of silent prayer that predates the canonization of the Bible.
Contemplative prayer has rescued me from years of anxious, uncertain, and insecure prayers. While it hasn’t been easy to learn how to sit in silence before God, it has since become a spiritual lifeline each day where I am able to rest fully in God without placing expectations on myself to produce a particular spiritual outcome.
I spent my childhood wandering by myself in the woods by my family’s home. I used to be so content and happy with that kind of expansive silence for hours at a time. Over the years, it became unusual to take such trips into the woods by myself. By the time I became an adult, such stretches of silence free from distraction became a kind agony or discipline that I had to force upon myself. How did I unlearn this practice of silence and solitude so completely?
Looking back at who I used to be, spending time before God in silence would have been the most natural thing. Of course a spiritual person could rest in silence before a loving God. Why wouldn’t you?
Today, surrounded by cultural and religious stimuli, I’ve struggled to embrace a spirituality that relies on silence to such a seemingly extreme degree. The foundation of what I’m teaching my son is that silence before God is good and natural. We do “talking prayer” and “quiet prayer” together.
Because of his age, the quiet prayer portion is very short. We do some deep breathing in order to help him focus on the time of silence, breathing in and breathing out deeply. Our church in our last town does something similar at the start of the prayer ministry time, inviting the Holy Spirit to be present. We begin with the words, “Come Holy Spirit” and breathe deeply for about thirty seconds.
After we practice quiet prayer, we move on to prayers of thanksgiving, praise, and requests. Our oldest son is very observant, tending to watch something for longer than anyone thinks possible and only participating when he is 100% ready. He still isn’t very active during our prayer times. However, on several occasions I forgot to begin with quiet prayer, and he immediately intervened like only a young child can:“YOU FORGOT QUIET PRAYER!!! I NEED QUIET PRAYER!!!”
We had been working at this practice for at least a year by this point, and he hardly said “Boo” to any of my questions or comments about prayer over that time. He would just reply, “I want daddy to pray.” Like the little observer that he is, he wanted to see how prayer works over and over again. When I finally slipped up and forgot the essential practice of quiet prayer, he didn’t hesitate to set me straight.
In the coming years I’m going to work on making our quiet prayer moments longer. He already knows that I spend 20 minutes in silence each afternoon when he and his brother are confined to their bedrooms for a period of quiet play time. I’m hoping that the years of repetition and modeling will cement in his mind the vital place of quiet prayer before God.
I try to avoid waving my seminary degree around, but on the few occasions that I do, I try to emphasize that I’ve spent a great deal of my life reading the Bible cover to cover and studying various theologies and perspectives, but nothing has been more constructive for my faith than practicing quiet, contemplative prayer before a loving God. I aim to teach my boys two foundational things: God loves them and they can participate in that love in quiet contemplation.
Everything else in Christian belief, discipleship, transformation, and obedience flows out of that foundational teaching of God’s love for this world. It’s the love of God that prompted the coming of Jesus and it’s the love of God that Jesus commanded us to reciprocate.
As I pass along my Christian faith to my son, I’ll get around to the creeds and doctrines and scripture verses soon enough. If he misses the present love of God, I worry that he’ll fail to see the point of it all and fall into the same traps I did, playing doctrine police and turning the faith into a high stakes fight between religious insiders and outsiders. Knowing that he needs quiet prayer with a loving God is where our faith begins and ends. When he shouted at me, “I need quiet pray!”, I knew that something important had taken hold in his faith.
Take a First Step in Contemplative Prayer
Based on my own experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this practice. I tend to tell people that this is the book you give someone before passing along a book by Richard Rohr or Thomas Merton. The book is titled:
Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer
It’s on sale now:
Ed Cyzewski is the author of A Christian Survival Guide, Flee, Be Silent, Pray; Pray, Write, Grow; and other books. He writes at www.edcyzewski.com and is on Twitter at @edcyzewski.