Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Prayer as Listening to God: Distractions in silent prayer

Wednesday December 13 2017

Prayer as Listening to God: Distractions in silent prayer

If we want to listen to God in prayer, we have to quiet our racing minds. Several metaphors involving water have been helpful to me as I have encountered the inevitable struggles with wandering thoughts during contemplative prayer.

The wandering thoughts can include worries and preoccupations about my own life or the lives of people I love, projects I’m working on that I can’t resist thinking about, noises or other distractions from the physical environment, or even analysis of the spiritual profundity of what I’m experiencing. These distracting thoughts are particularly common at the beginning of a quiet prayer time, but they can unfortunately be all too frequent throughout the period of silence.

One of the people who led many of my early contemplative prayer experiences talked about these wandering thoughts as boats on a river. We can watch the boats, she said, and notice they are there, but we need to avoid the temptation of getting onto the boat and rummaging around in the hold. When we find ourselves boarding the boat and unpacking its contents, we can imagine ourselves stepping back off the boat and letting it float down the river without us.

Later someone else told me about the metaphor of a leaf on a river. This leader suggested that when we notice we have left the topic of the prayer and our minds have begun down another path, we view the random thought as a leaf. We let it float lightly down the river.

In her wonderful book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun suggests one more river metaphor to help with distracting thoughts. She suggests that we imagine God’s river of life running through us. Deep down in the river, the water is calm and slow, but the surface is cluttered with turmoil and debris. We can imagine our distracting thoughts as a part of that debris and turmoil on the surface, and let that part of the river be carried away by the current. The goal of quiet prayer is to return to the depth of the river where the presence of Jesus imparts peace and calm. [1]

I like the river analogies. Jesus compares the Holy Spirit to living water (John 7:37-39), and in Revelation, the river of the water of life flows through the heavenly city (Revelation 22:1-2). In contemplative prayer I relinquish my worries, my tendency to analyze everything, my preoccupations about work and all my other concerns into the hands of the Holy Spirit, who will take those thoughts into the River of Life. My concerns float lightly on the river like leaves. With the help of the Holy Spirit, those preoccupations and worries are not heavy and leaden. Instead, they float away, as light as leaves, entrusted into God’s loving care.

Calhoun suggests another metaphor to help with distracting thoughts. Imagine, she suggests, that you are visiting a friend who lives in a busy urban setting. The windows are open because it is a warm day, and you can hear the street noise and the voices of passersby. Sometimes you even hear sirens. But you love your friend and want to be attentive, so although you notice the sounds coming from outside the window, you don’t let your mind engage with them. Over and over, you return your focus to your friend. In the same way, in silent prayer, over and over you return your focus to Christ with you. [2]

Calhoun’s busy street metaphor is helpful in a slightly different way than the water metaphors because it emphasizes relationship. Jesus has invited us to be his friends (John 15:12-17), and when we spend time with any friend, we can find distractions to be troubling. But our love for our friend draws us back continually into conversation, caring, and listening. Our priority is our relationship with our friend, and in any form of prayer, our priority is our attention to God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

When leading contemplative prayer experiences, describing one of these metaphors for the group can be helpful, particularly with longer prayer experiences such as centering prayer, described below. Most people experience a lot of guilt when learning to engage in contemplative prayer because they are ashamed of their wandering minds. Everyone’s mind wanders in silent prayer, and the water and friend metaphors can help us return to an awareness of God’s presence over and over as we pray.

(Next week: looking back on our lives to see God’s hand at work. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Most of the posts in this series are adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality, but this post is excerpted from another one of my books, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. Joy Together discusses the pros and cons of engaging in various spiritual practices alone and with others, and it has six chapters on how to engage in specific spiritual practices – fasting, contemplative prayer, contemplative approaches to scripture, hospitality, communal discernment, and Sabbath keeping – with small groups and even whole congregations.

[1] Adele Ahlborg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 209.[2] Ibid.



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