Silence and Prayer
Silence and the Single Phrase
The question many people ask today is not ‘why do we pray?’, but ‘how can we pray in a world that has become so busy and noisy in a culture of overwork?’ For some people the answer may be in the way of prayer where the emphasis is on an attentive listening to God in a silence that becomes the medium of the prayer. Words are reduced to a minimum, to a single phrase, and such phrases can be gleaned from the psalms. Such a familiar phrase is ‘be still and know that I am God’ (Ps 46.10). Another familiar phrase, not from the gospels, is ‘abide in me and I in you’. From the Daily Office, the prayer ‘O God make speed to save us’, used for centuries in the daily prayer of the Church, may be personalized into ‘O God make speed to save me’.
In quietly repeating such a phrase the person praying seeks to focus all their attention in the quieting of the heart, mind, will, the emotions and senses. In the poverty of the single verse, prayer becomes a quiet waiting upon God where we listen for God to make himself known in his own good time. Like Elijah, we want to hear the voice of God not in the noise and fire, but in the still small voice. Such prayer requires us to wait and be receptive so that our prayer becomes a listening to God.
Today there is an increasing interest in a method that is called ‘the way of quiet waiting upon God’. Another word for it is ‘contemplation’. In Sacred and Secular, Michael Ramsey asked whether the movement to recover the meaning of Liturgy – the bridging between worship and the common life – would succeed. He said that it would only succeed if, with liturgical renewal, there was also a revival of this way of prayer: the prayer of quiet waiting upon God.
Thomas Merton, another twentieth-century man of prayer, describes it as a quieting of our whole life by self-denial, prayer and good works; so that God himself, who seeks us more than we seek him, can ‘find us’ and ‘take possession of us’. This way of knowing and
experiencing God is accessible to anyone who is ready to be obedient and humble and to want God very much. St Gregory the Great often preached about it to mixed congregations. Does your parish priest preach about this way of prayer?
The Way of the Pilgrim
The Way of the Pilgrim (SPCK), is the story of a Russian pilgrim. The Russian title may be literally translated as ‘Candid Narratives of a Pilgrim to His Spiritual Father’. This book, translated from the Russian by R. M. French, tells the story of a simple man who wanted to find out how to pray without ceasing. During the Liturgy he had heard the words of St Paul encouraging us to do just this. Eventually he met a monk who set him on the way of such unceasing interior prayer.
The monk said that many people get it the wrong way round. They think that good actions and all sorts of preliminary measures render us capable of prayer. Actually, it is the reverse that is true. It is prayer that bears fruit in good works and in all the virtues. The Christian is bound to perform many good works, but before all else what the Christian ought to do is to pray: for without prayer no other good work whatever can be accomplished. St Isaac the Syrian said, ‘Learn first to acquire the power of prayer and you will easily practise all the virtues’.
The Jesus Prayer
The monk gave the pilgrim what he called ‘The Jesus Prayer’ [see also November 2015]. This is a constant calling upon the divine name of Jesus, with the lips, in the Spirit in the heart. The words of the prayer are Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
Repeat this constantly, the monk tells the pilgrim, and you will experience a deep consolation, and so great a need to offer the prayer that you will not be able to live without it
Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Let your thoughts move from your head into your heart. As you breathe out say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’. Say it moving your lips gently or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all your thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient and repeat the process very frequently.
The prayer may be reduced to a single phrase, but it does contain the two essential elements of Christian devotion in adoration and penitence. In the same moment we express our adoration to God in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. Like the publican we also remember and give expression to our sorrow for human weakness in ‘Lord, have mercy upon me’. ND
An edited extract from Prayer in the Workaday World (Gracewing) by Arthur Middleton