For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him. – Psalm 62:5
Recently, I posted a re-creation of a sermon about prayer and our relationship with God, in which I suggested that God was not a cosmic vending machine into which we might place our prayers like quarters with the expectation that our request will be supplied. That elicited one formal comment (along with some informal ones) asking about what prayer was and how it should be done.
I don’t claim to be an expert on prayer by any means. But through my own experience of praying, and attempting to pray, I find that the form of prayer that is the most simple outwardly is the most difficult inwardly, and yet, it is the essence of what I have come to believe prayer is meant to be. That form of prayer is described in the verse from Psalm 62 quoted above: “For God alone my soul is silence waits, for my hope is from him.” There are a number of times in the Psalms where the reader is counseled to wait for God. The language is always poetic, but the point seems to me to be clear: that if we wish to experience God, then we must spend time waiting in an attitude of quiet and silence. When we are able, in a place of relative outward quiet, to bring quiet into our own minds and hearts, then we can begin to perceive the subtle energies of God moving within us, reaching out to us, seeking to transform in us whatever needs to be transformed so that we might be more like Christ.
For this, I believe, is the heart of the Christian journey: to make ourselves vulnerable to the energies of God, which we call by the names of love, grace, mercy – just to name a few. Those energies, which we perceive most effectively when we are able to quiet ourselves and enter the silence of the soul, invite us to cooperate with God in a synergistic relationship that changes us into the form of Christ. Not that many of us become completely transformed into a Christ-like humanity; but that is hardly the point. Even to be partially transformed, even to enter into each day with the intention of seeking to be Christ-like, will move us nearer to our true selves, to participating in and manifesting authentic humanity. This is hardly a new teaching. It is very ancient in the Christian tradition, but over the centuries, we have tended to lose track of it – particularly in the West. But it has reappeared in our own time, through movements like Centering Prayer and the rediscovery of the Jesus Prayer tradition, as well as other forms of Christian meditation.
But while making ourselves vulnerable to the energies of God through the prayer of silent waiting is at the heart of our Christian journey, it hardly constitutes the whole of that journey. For if the energies of God act to invite us into being more like Christ, then clearly we are meant to manifest something of the Christ in our own lives. While the Gospels present us with various portraits of the life of Jesus, the pattern or form of his life is clear throughout all of them. The life of Christ is balanced between a silent waiting for God in solitude and an active life of radical self-giving service. Our life is meant to be similarly balanced. By spending time each day in silent, contemplative prayer, “waiting for God”, making ourselves vulnerable to the energies of God, we are made more able to manifest Christ in our own lives so that when we rise from our time of prayer, we are motivated and empowered to engage the world in the same way Jesus did, with some measure of selflessness and compassion.
Of course, it is possible to act in the world selflessly and compassionately without a practice of contemplative prayer. But contemplative prayer adds at least three important dimensions to our lives. First, it cultivates in us an increasing sense of interior peace, which includes the ability to respond more wisely to the world around us rather than to react more instinctively. Second, it allows us to act in the world with less anxiety and less ego. This makes our work more skillful and, when things don’t go as we planned, it helps prevent us from having our ego so attached to the outcome of our efforts. Thus, we are less likely to be overwhelmed by failure, and to be more easily renewed to attempt the work again. Finally, contemplative prayer is the tool that allows us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God and to experience our relationship with God more profoundly. It helps us to feel and to know that we are loved by God, and that ultimately our souls – the very essence of our humanity – cannot be injured by the vicissitudes of life. Understanding this at a deep level of being transforms our perspective on our own lives and the life of the world.
The Christian tradition never separates the individual practice of prayer from the prayer of the community. Liturgical prayer, our public worship services, and the celebration of the sacraments – especially the Eucharist, or Communion – nourishes and supports our contemplative practice as well as our carrying forward of that practice into an active life of compassionate service. Through the rituals of worship, and the sacramental use of water, bread, wine, oil and touch, the energies of God which are present more subtly in our individual prayer lives are made more concrete to us, and are magnified as they mingle with the energy of the community of faith gathered together. The power of the sacred space created by a worshipping community should never be underestimated.
And so, the answer to the question of how to pray is deceptively simple: to wait for God in the silence of one’s soul, to quiet the mind and heart in order to be vulnerable to the energies of God. Thereby, we are slowly made more like Christ, as a rock is slowly softened and reshaped by a constant stream of living water. I use the term “deceptively simple” because those who attempt this way of prayer usually find it difficult, for two main reasons. First, to spend time waiting daily in silence is deeply counter-cultural, and so we are assaulted by a sense that we are wasting our time. It does not help that this way of prayer requires time and regular practice to bear fruit, so accustomed have we become to instant results. Second, as soon as we attempt to quiet our minds, the volume seems to turn itself up, and we find ourselves barraged by a constant stream of thoughts which carry us away and obscure the energies of God moving within us. There are various methods for dealing with these thoughts, most of which involve not fighting against them, but acknowledging their presence and then gently letting them go. Over time, our minds do learn to quiet down. But it is hard to give the time required for that to happen.
This brings me to a final point about prayer: it is not a quick path to spiritual fitness. The same thing is true of our souls that is true of our bodies – we cannot cannot get them in shape overnight. Physical fitness requires a sustained pattern of diet and exercise over a long period of time. Spiritual fitness requires the same thing, in terms of a sustained practice of contemplative and liturgical prayer over time. Yet, the rewards can be personally profound. And, in terms of our engagement with the world, a sustained practice of prayer can lead us to act in the world with wisdom, helping us to make God’s vision for our world more and more of a reality.