The place of silence in prayer

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 2

This post is a response to a recent discussion in my Facebook group Authentic Contemplative Prayer about silence. What is the place of silence in mental prayer? The answer is too complex for Facebook comments. Let’s try to tackle it here.

Silencing distractions

Every time we pray, whether vocal or mental prayer, we should gently try to set aside distractions. We do this by taking a few moments to transition from secular pursuits to prayer. How? Here are some suggestions:

  • Breathe slowly and deeply while focusing the mind on God.
  • Read a short passage from a favorite spiritual book.
  • Slowly recite a vocal prayer.
  • Imagine yourself entering God’s presence and giving Him your distractions.

These are all means of recollecting our thoughts so that we are ready to be receptive to the Holy Spirit.

Notice, we do not just sit in silence once we have recollected ourselves — unless we are in one of the two situations described below.

The prayer of simple gaze

The prayer of simple gaze, also called the prayer of simplicity or acquired recollection, is a simplification of meditation. We start with reading Scripture or looking at sacred art or some other matter that moves the mind and the heart toward God.

People who have practiced mental prayer for a long time no longer need a lot of reflection and other intellectual activity before the heart feels drawn to the Lord. Instead, they feel drawn toward sitting silently in His presence. Usually, after a few minutes they will experience distractions. At that point, they should return to their meditation material. If they feel drawn toward silence again, they should again follow that impulse for as long as the mind and heart are occupied with God.

Many people experience the prayer of simple gaze while at Adoration. When The Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ is before us in sacramental form, elaborate meditation is sometimes unnecessary. Gazing at the Eucharist takes the place of reading the Scriptures. Meditation may be so simple and brief that we do not even realize that the movement of the heart toward God is a result of the senses encountering God in a mysterious way. This too is the prayer of simple gaze. When our minds become distracted, we take up the Scriptures or another book, or begin reflecting on the Blessed Sacrament, or other truths of the faith. We may or may not be led back into silence.

Infused contemplation

John of the Cross cautions that until God gives us the gift of infused contemplation, we should continue to practice meditation, even if the prayer of simple gaze is our daily experience. He writes:

“At the proper time one should abandon this imaginative meditation so that the journey to God may not be hindered, but so that there is no regression, one should not abandon it before the due time… as long as one can make discursive meditation and draw out satisfaction, one must not abandon this method.”

The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book 2, Ch. 13.

Notice the word “must.” John of the Cross is the Mystical Doctor of the Church — the number-one expert on this subject, so-designated by the Church. Completely abandoning meditation when one begins experiencing the prayer of simple gaze is misguided. It can lead to self-indulgence in prayer and attachment to consolations.

More troubling are practices like centering prayer that teach people to purposely set aside all thoughts. Spiritual “regression,” if not shipwreck of one’s relationship with God, can result.

Be still and know?

Finally, one of the most often misquoted verses I see regarding prayer is Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” This verse is not instructing us on how to pray, but on how to react to crises. Here is the whole Psalm, so you can understand the context:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
    God will help her right early.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has wrought desolations in the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
    he burns the chariots with fire!
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

The Bible never instructs us to pray by sitting silently and “listening to God.” I cannot think of any saints who instruct us to do so either. (If readers have any quotes from the saints on this matter, please share them.) “Listening to God” without the use of Scripture as a guide often results in listening to our own imaginings. It can also be used by evil spirits (although I would think this is rarer). It cultivates a taste for and attachment to extraordinary phenomena like visions and locutions.

I don’t at all want to discourage you from including silence in prayer, but it should be kept in its proper place. This is one of many areas in which a spiritual director can help you discern what kind of silence God is calling you to at a given time.

Connie Rossini

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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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2 Responses

  1. Paschal

    I’ve come across this story about Mother Teresa listening in silence, though I haven’t tracked down a primary source. Here is one instance of the story:

    Dan Rather asked, “When you pray, what do you say to God?”
    Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”
    Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”
    Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”
    There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next.
    Finally Mother Teresa breaks the silence by saying, “If you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I’m sorry but there’s no way I can explain it any better.”

    • Connie Rossini

      It’s one thing for a saint to say (being already very advanced) that she just listens to God. It’s something else altogether to instruct beginners in prayer to do so.

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