Though it sounds a little too simple and perhaps too good to be true, one of the very best ways of praying is just to sit quietly for 20 minutes. No agenda, no plan for what may happen, no real expectations. Just set a timer for 20 minutes and sit there in your own skin and in God’s presence. “Don’t we have to do something in order to get to God’s presence?”, we may ask. No, of course not. God is fully present in this world already. Always we are in God’s presence but sometimes it takes getting very still and quiet to know God’s presence.
One of our problems with the practice of silence is that we’re not sure what we’re supposed to do or think when we are quiet. “Should I have some mantra? What about those uncomfortable thoughts or all the anxieties and worries we have? Shouldn’t I be thinking something holy and pure while I am quiet?” We can manage a busy family schedule, run a big firm, make huge earthly decisions, but it’s so hard for us just to sit quietly and trust the value of being wherever we are on a given day. It almost seems like the more capable we are in life, the harder it is just to sit quietly and make ourselves available to God.
One problem is that we’re more comfortable telling God what to do or asking for things to turn out a certain way than we are just considering things and learning to trust that God is working in this messy world. Practicing silence teaches us to listen. As things settle out in the silence, a sense of clarity eventually emerges. It may not happen every time we practice silence but the practice has a cumulative effect. Over time we begin to hear what we need to hear.
One particular approach to silence is very helpful and it comes under the heading of Welcoming Prayer. Instead of trying to steer our thoughts and feelings in silence, Welcoming Prayer encourages us to acknowledge whatever we are thinking or feeling more deeply. If, say, when I sit in silence I am feeling particularly anxious about something in life, rather than trying to push that to the side, Welcoming Prayer invites that anxiety in and accepts it. I may even breathe deeply and consciously welcome anxiety. Rather than getting anxious about being anxious, I just admit that I am anxious. As I breathe out, some of the power of that anxiety is released. Just naming things in life for what they are often takes the sting out of them. And so it is with Welcoming Prayer. I name things, accept them for what they are, and let them be.
A great benefit of sitting in silence for 20 minutes is that, while I am paying attention to the various circumstances in my life, I am not rushing around trying to do anything in particular about those things. I am quietly considering what is going on. And I am agreeing not to do anything to fix those things for the moment. Over time I learn that, while I am called to fulfill many duties, there’s not much in life that I can actually fix or control. I also come to see that the things I fear most don’t usually turn out as threatening as I first imagine them. Bad things happen in life that I can’t control. And still I can be well and whole in the midst of all that.
Often in life we think we have to keep bad things from happening or construct a world where good things occur if we are to be well. Deep down inside we know we can’t control things, though, and accepting life as it is leads to a new integrity. Welcoming Prayer helps me name what is going on in my life. It helps me develop a sense of grounding and peace. It helps me see that my wellbeing isn’t solely determined by my actions or circumstances. It helps me come to know a partnership with God where love and grace uphold me and empower me. As I acknowledge the things far beyond my power to fix and control, I find a new power within me to address things I may otherwise avoid.
As with any exercise, prayer or physical, one session of Welcoming Prayer isn’t going to do much. Consistently practicing silence and Welcoming Prayer over time will bring measurable results. Consistently befriend silence. Consistently sit quietly. Welcome your enemies of fear and anxiety. Welcome your thoughts and feelings into your heart more deeply rather than trying to push them down the road. They will pass through you and God’s peace will abide.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.