When We Pray–Silent Prayer

June 4, 2015 |

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Eighty adults filed into the chapel of a Catholic high school. They were the faculty, coaches, administrators, and staff of the school. They had just listened to talks on the spiritual life during a morning of recollection. Now, the president of the school, Fr. Ed, was going to lead them in a period of silent prayer. He gave a brief instruction about posture and focus. The prayer was to be a quiet attentiveness to the presence of the Lord. If minds wandered, Fr. Ed recommended having a word or phrase which would help re-focus, such as Abba. The prayer would last twenty minutes.

Fr. Ed signaled the beginning of the prayer by striking a tiny bell. The chapel went quiet. Physical movement ceased. The silence was palpable. Eyes closed, the eighty adults practiced a wordless prayer. They were the leaders of the school, and now they were taking time to remember the presence of the Lord in their lives and in the lives of their students. Not only a school, it was a community of faith. After twenty minutes, the bell sounded. The group stirred, concluded with a vocal prayer, and then went to lunch.

Is such silence prayer? It is when the silence allows for an awareness of God’s presence. Usually when we think of prayer, we think of what we say to God. The reality is, in prayer God is addressing us. God speaks first in prayer. God spoke us into life and continually calls us more deeply into our lives. We are basically listeners, hearers of God’s word. All our words are an attempt to say the one Word which is God’s. Silent prayer is a listening prayer. We listen for the approach of God. We keep vigil, like a watch in the night. Words and thoughts can sometimes block the immediacy of God’s presence. In silent prayer, heart speaks to heart.

The external silence can assist an internal silence, and the one who prays becomes an expectancy.

An intimate sharing
Prayer has been described as an intimate sharing with one who loves us (St. Teresa of Avila). It is conversation with a friend. The truth is we do not have to form a relationship with God. We are already in a relationship. This “friend” is closer to us than we are to ourselves. What is missing is our awareness of the friendship. The term “centering prayer” is often used to identify certain forms of silent prayer. A word, a phrase, an image, even one’s breathing may be used to center us in silence. It is not easy to keep the mind from wandering and becoming distracted.

While it sounds peaceful, such a focus on this most important relationship in our life may initially be uncomfortable. One saint confessed she stopped praying for two years because she felt unworthy to be in God’s presence. Also, we may have to learn to be comfortable with ourselves. The silence may throw light on our life, and it can be painful truth. It would be easier to run away from ourselves in distractions and busyness. Perhaps the simplest instruction about prayer is found in Psalm 46: Be still, and know that I am God.

Silent prayer need not take twenty minutes. It can be done in one minute. And threading such times throughout the day can help us keep our priorities straight. We are reminded to be intentional about our lives, knowing why we are doing what we are doing. Hopefully, this increased attention to God’s presence in our lives can help us be more peaceful, more centered, and more in tune with God’s will. A mixture of listening in silence and then speaking to God might be a helpful blend.

The test of all prayer is the compassion and love we extend to our brothers and sisters, and perhaps offer to ourselves as well. The faculty and staff who prayed in silence in the high school chapel had the opportunity to come to a place beneath their anxieties and concerns where they could rest in the Lord’s presence and be renewed for their journey.

John Welch O.Carm.
Fr. John Welch, a Chicago native, recently served as Prior Provincial of the Carmelite Province of the Most Pure Heart of Mary for six years. He has written and spoken extensively on the interplay of Carmelite spirituality and the insights of psychology. As a teacher at Washington Theological Union he specialized in Carmelite spirituality and human development. He has an M.A. in theology and a Ph.D. in religious education from the University of Notre Dame. Among his publications are Spiritual Pilgrims: Carl Jung and Teresa of Avila; When Gods Die: an introduction to St. John of the Cross; The Carmelite Way: An ancient path for today’s pilgrim.
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