The On Being Project

Stillness and Silent Prayer

Stillness and Silent Prayer

“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature — trees, flowers, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence… we need silence to be able to touch souls.” —Mother Theresa

“He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life.” —William Law

“Prayer is the movement of trust, of gratitude, of adoration, or of sorrow, that places us before God, seeing both Him and ourselves in the light of His infinite truth and moves us to ask Him for the mercy, the spiritual strength, the material help that we all need… It is therefore a deep and vital contact with Him…”Thomas Merton

I recently spent a week on silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. And, just like last year, I am transformed by the experience of that silence. But it is much different now. Last year I went as a tourist, taking in the newness and excitement of it all; this year I went back as a family member returning home. The silence was deeper, more profound.

There is a silence in the rhythm of the monks’ chanting that reached into my heart and soothed and quieted all the pain, agitation, and addictions. I felt God’s presence and God’s love more deeply than ever before. I was fully able to “let all voices but God’s be still in me.”

But there was more. It wasn’t just about the silence, or the beauty, or the solitude. I was able to enter into that holy space with the monks and understand what that silence and solitude are all about. They are about prayer. And prayer is about change, about allowing God to come alive in us, and mold us into the glorious creatures we were created to be. It is not so much about God hearing us, but about us being able to hear Him.

A monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. (Abbey of Gethsemani.)

We live in an insanely busy, insanely cacophonous world. Between computers, cell phones, iPods, and our daily interactions with the world of construction, cars, TV’s, and even normal conversation, most of us go through the day without a moment of deep silence. We have no real way to shake off the world and allow ourselves to be nourished by Spirit. As Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” The bread Matthew refers to is not just the literal dough that we eat, but all the things of the world; all the things that fill our minds, our bellies, our eyes, and our ears.

I’m sure it would come as no surprise to you that despite all our material comforts, we, as a culture, feel more alone and alienated than ever before. Part of that is because our advances in technology allow us to do almost everything we need to do right in our own living rooms. My son and his friends will spend an entire day “together” playing X-box Live. No actual human contact. But I believe the real reason is we have cut ourselves off from God; we are in exile, desperate for re-connection. The only way I know to do that is through prayer and silence. And prayer in silence. God doesn’t need us to speak aloud in order to hear us. When we pray from our hearts, we connect to the heart of God. And to the hearts of every other praying soul.

Long before I had ever heard about Gethsemani, I had a conversation about the value of all the monks and nuns praying throughout the world. The other person said, cynically, that clearly those prayers weren’t helping much. To which I replied, “How do you know the world wouldn’t be a whole lot worse without them? As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.”

A winter sunrise at the Abbey of Gethsemani. (Br. Paul Quenon)

I understand that silence can be terrifying; most people will do anything to avoid it. This is because in silence there is nothing to distract us from ourselves. We are confronted by our fears, insecurities, regrets, remorse, and shame. Bu this is precisely the groundwork for connection to God. We can use our fears, our cries of pain, our moans of despair and shame; they are prayers as surely as a hallelujah. For me, prayer and silence are not optional because I believe with all my heart that since our only true happiness lies in seeking and doing God’s will for us, we are doomed to unhappiness if we don’t take the time to sit in silence and listen for God’s voice.

And because I believe that prayer works, that it transforms me and causes me to take actions that can transform others and our world, I believe I have not just a desire but an obligation to take a daily time out from the world to be fully in God’s presence.

This doesn’t mean we need to be in deep meditation. It is enough to be quiet and still. It’s probably best to be in nature, which is God’s untouched world, but if you can’t get there, just take time to find silence wherever you are. Unplug the phone, computer, and anything else that could make noise, and just sit. Or walk. Or swing on a swing. Or work in your garden. Or take a bath. Just be silent and aware of the breath of God in and around you. Say a prayer. And then listen…

I have been back from Gesthsemani for some time now. I miss being there. I miss that moment at the end of each chapel session where the lights go out and it’s dark and silent and the air is heavy and sweet with God’s presence, and I would sit there and breathe it in, savoring each delicious breath. But now I know I can create that here. No chanting monks, but a softly playing CD of chanting monks, and the rest of the world turned off. I can open my heart to God in prayer and join my breath to His. I can hear him say to me, “My precious child, I love you and I am with you always.” And then sometimes he adds, “Now here’s what I need you to do.”

Cross Knob at Gethsemani Abbey. (Br. Paul Quenon)

Share Your Reflection