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Silence and prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday August 1 2023

Silence and prayer

When you think of praying in silence, what comes to mind? Walking in a beautiful park? The dark, quiet hours in the middle of the night? Reading a passage from the Bible and praying in response to what you read? Praying a written prayer like the one at the end of this blog post or a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer or another collection of prayers?

A month ago, when I started pondering the spiritual practices of silence and solitude as they relate to prayer, I saw silence and solitude as practices with a lot of overlap, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate how they differed. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s wonderful Spiritual Disciplines Handbook gave me lots of fuel for pondering. She views solitude as a “container discipline” for other practices (see my post from last week), while she considers silence to be a spiritual practice on its own. Silence, in Calhoun’s view, has healing properties, particularly when we try to attend to God’s voice and presence in silence. Notice that in her definition, reading is not a silent practice because reading involves words, and she encourages us to view silence as a time without words. The comment in parentheses in her definition comes from her, not from me. Calhoun writes:

“Silence is the regenerative practice of attending and listening to God in quiet, without interruption and without noise. Silence provides freedom from speaking as well as from listening to words or music. (Reading is also listening to words.)” [1]

For each of the spiritual practices in her book, she writes what our desire can be for this practice. For silence, she believes the desire is “to free myself from the addiction to and distraction of noise so I can be totally present to the Lord; to open myself to God in the place beyond words.” I really like the way she views silence as way to bring freedom in the midst of our addictions and distractions.

We can experience silence before God either alone or with others. Here’s where silence does not overlap with solitude. I want to tell you how I learned about this.

I am 39 years old. A woman who has been a powerful model for me is talking about the silent prayer time she attends every Friday from noon to one. She is the minister at a church in a Seattle neighborhood with five or six other churches. The ministers of those churches decided to gather on Fridays at lunchtime to pray together silently. They rotate from one church building to the next, and they invite the members of their congregations to join in. She tells me that every Friday there might be ten or twelve people there.

"What do you do in that time?" I ask.

"We meditate or pray silently," she responds.

I am incredulous. Why would you join with others to pray silently when you can do that anywhere and anytime on your own?

A year later my own church starts offering classes on contemplative prayer, various forms of silent prayer including breath prayer, guided meditations, examen, lectio divina, and centering prayer. Unlike many other Christians I talk to, from the very beginning, I find these forms of contemplative prayer to be refreshing and life-giving. My sons are 10 and 12, and our house is usually filled with intense and sometimes contentious voices, as well as the music they love. My own silent prayer times — during the many hours I experience insomnia and when I walk down to Greenlake, the lake near our house — are filled with pleas for help, as well as inner noise. Why do I struggle so much as a mother? Why am I so untidy and overweight?

I find that structured silent prayer in a group gives me two gifts: some silence in the midst of all the noise I hear at home and enough structure to quiet my mind so that I can step aside from the inner noise of self-criticism that bedevils me all too often. I decide to write an article for our church newsletter about the contemplative prayer classes, so I ask everyone to stay late and give me comments about their experience. They talk about intimacy without words. They say that they are able to pray silently so much longer and peacefully in the presence of others than they can achieve alone. They also love the depth of sharing after silent prayer together.

Ironically, silent prayer and listening to God in the form of lectio divina involves meditating on the words of scripture, so it doesn’t fit strictly into Calhoun’s emphasis on silence as freedom from words. That irony illustrates that in the areas of solitude, silence, and prayer, we cannot draw strict lines and categories. Instead, we can focus on experimenting with new forms of prayer in order to figure out what feels doable and fruitful.

I love silent prayer in the presence of others, whether that’s in a contemplative prayer class or retreat, in short silent prayer moments at church, or with my husband. And yet I don’t seek out opportunities to pray silently in groups very often anymore. Our house is quieter these days! And because I have experienced insomnia since I was pregnant with my older son, now in his early 40s, I have a lot of time to pray in silence and solitude in the middle of the night. I even have moments of gratitude for the insomnia because of the precious companionship I have experienced with Jesus when I’m awake in the wee small hours.

I encourage you to ponder the role of silence in your prayer life.

Lord of the night as well as the day, Creator of the silence of outer space and galaxies, help us notice and reflect on the patterns of silence in our lives, especially related to prayer. Please give us moments when we are renewed by attending to you in the quiet, without interruption, and without noise. Help us recognize moments when we can choose freedom from speaking as well as from listening to words or music. We ask for companions in silence at the right times. Restore our souls, we beg, and give us eyes to see the ways that prayer in silence alone or with others — refreshes and heals us.

(This is the 12th post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. If you’d like to learn more about spiritual practices, the first post of the series is here. That post also has a list of all the posts in the series. Illustration by Dave Baab: Lake Te Anau, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Related posts:

[1] In the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, the section on silence is pages 121-124. (Adele Alhberg Calhoun, InterVarsity Press, 2015 edition.)

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