O Lord, I am not proud;
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters;
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the Lord,
from this time forth for evermore. (Psalm 131)
A good portion of my office time is spent with people in spiritual direction. It’s a pretty simple arrangement where someone agrees to adopt a daily discipline of prayer and reflection, a discipline they decide on themselves and then reflect on with me as we meet every six weeks or so. It’s often a therapeutic conversation but it’s far from therapy. Therapy’s intention is to solve problems or change behavior. The intent of spiritual direction is to listen and observe what sort of changes God might be suggesting over time. My job as a spiritual partner rarely involves suggesting major changes in someone’s life. Mainly I accompany people as they go through small and major changes. As we accept where we are, it usually becomes clear how we might need to change for greater fulfillment.
Those more mature in that sort of spiritual discipline almost always have a common cornerstone. Most people who have been tending to their spiritual pilgrimage for some years have embraced a very simple form of prayer: twenty minutes of silence. Just silence. Typically they wake up and get a cup of coffee if they are coffee drinkers and then seek out a favorite chair or space to sit in. Some read a few scripture lessons. Some read a daily devotional. Some write for a bit in a journal. But almost always those who are sage veterans in prayer set a timer for twenty minutes and just sit quietly.
Those who are considering trying such a practice usually have a bunch of questions: What am I supposed to think about when I am silent?; How do I clear my mind so that I’m not thinking about all the things I have to do?; What sort of mantra can I use to take myself to that far off place of meditation?. Most newcomers to silence want to know the secret formula. The only real secret to being silent for twenty minutes is to… be silent… for twenty minutes. And, like all disciplines, the fruit is in repetition.
The veterans report a variety of things about their times of silence. Most say their minds are pretty busy right at first. Some say they focus on their breathing a little to gain a sense of calm. Many say that after a while they are conscious of a feeling of sinking further into the chair or a sense of heaviness in their hands or feet. Silence has a way of drawing our attention away from the up-up-up to the down-down-down. The flurry in our minds gives way to a sense of presence.
Practicing silence involves acceptance of whatever presents itself while we are being quiet. We have to get past trying to orchestrate what is going to happen in the silence and simply allow whatever will happen to happen. There are times when the mind will never get still but at least we have agreed not to do anything about those worries for twenty minutes. Sometimes there is great wisdom in not doing something about our worries and allowing God to do his work.
So how is silence prayer? It is accepting what is. It is coming to trust that as I sit quietly I can know who God is more accurately. It is agreeing not to tell God what God needs to think about and deciding to listen for a while. It is taking myself out of the spotlight. It is admitting anxiety but letting it dissolve. It is a humble way of relating to God. It is practicing patience with ourselves, the universe, and God. And that is prayer.
Summer is often dismissed as a time when our schedules are disrupted and we are taken away from our various support networks. Familiar routines for many disappear and we feel less disciplined. Maybe silence can be your guide these summer months. Just sit still for twenty minutes a day and see what happens over time. You won’t be studying or gaining information or spelling out all the things that need attention. But, like a child upon its mother’s breast, you may just find a deeper sense of who God is and who you are in relation to that nurturing presence.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Family Promise: July 12-19
St. John’s hosts Family Promise, our homeless family ministry that we share with about a dozen churches in town, July 12-19. Up to three families will sleep in some of classrooms made into bedrooms and eat supper here each night. Meal volunteers cook supper for our guest. Over Night Hosts spend the night here in a comfy classroom/bedroom of their own and are available in case of some emergency. Other volunteers wash linens. It’s a simply way of helping some who are in need and showing them respect as fellow children of God. We share the compassion Christ has given us. Barbara and Carl Viars coordinate our Family Promise efforts and we need a number of people to make the week go well. Sign up in the parish hall or contact Barbara and Carl at firstname.lastname@example.org.