Receiving Silence and Resting in Prayer

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In his Spiritual Letters, Abbot John Chapman offers this counsel regarding the practice of prayer, away from efforts that are strenuous and exhausting, and toward an experience of prayer that is contemplative, restful, and peaceful.

What does Chapman think is the right way to approach a contemplative experience of prayer?

I think the right way is (1) indirect and (2) negative.

(1) Indirect. Practice prayer, as much as possible, in the quiet way of contemplation: the effect follows of itself, out of prayer.

(2) Negative. Avoid distractions, as far as possible. Cultivate the habit of getting a few instants or a few minutes of peace as often as possible. It is like opening a window to let peace flow in: or, still more, like shutting a door to keep noise out. But you can’t make silence. You can make a noise. But you can only “make” silence by stopping the noise, or stopping your ears. Hence the way to get that “recollection,” which is simply interior peace, is not by any positive effort, but only negative effort;–that is, the cessation of acting or thinking.

Consequently, it ought always to be a relaxation, not an effort. Consequently, it ought never to cause fatigue, or overstrain, or headache.

I think all this is true, and I hope it is clear. Beginners have to meditate, work, tire themselves. But contemplation is rest, peace and refreshment; and its effect is extraordinarily strengthening. Just as the body is after sleep, so the will is after prayer.

The bold emphasis is mine. I say it this way: You can’t make silence. You can only enter it, or receive it. The silence is there waiting for us to cease our noise making and to quiet ourselves. It is something to rest in. When entered, we are invited to notice God, to pay attention, to listen, to “be still” and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). And if we know God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ, resting in him is an experience of true sabbath (Hebrews 4:1-13).

Silence, received as gift, can be given. How? By keeping it, by refraining from making a noise. Silence, then, can also be shared, and in sharing, there can be another gift: presence. We can be present to ourselves, to the other, and to God.

Chapman writes, “contemplation is rest, peace and refreshment; and its effect is extraordinarily strengthening. Just as the body is after sleep, so the will is after prayer.”

How does silent, contemplative prayer strengthen and refresh us, reinforcing the will? By reminding us of God’s character, beauty, and grace, and by alerting us to our weakness, infirmity, and humble position. We consider anew the grandeur of who we serve, and renew our commitment to glorify God. We also contemplate our lowly estate and need for divine help. The needy ask for help; God will supply it (Psalm 72:12). We are thereby emboldened and humbled, simultaneously, by silently attending to God.

Getting “Unstuck” in Prayer

Have you ever felt stuck when trying to pray?

Do you ever feel distracted, confused, frustrated, or at a loss when attempting to communicate with God?

Have your efforts in prayer felt like failure?

Have you ever said your prayers to God should feel and sound and be some way other than what you are experiencing?

What do you do?

In his Spiritual Letters, Abbot John Chapman writes:

Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.

Take yourself as you find yourself, and start from that.

Remember, God sees your desire to pray. And where do you think that desire comes from?

Simple prayers, earnestly spoken, are a wonderful way to begin. And I’m encouraged to know that when I am without words, the Spirit intercedes for me (Romans 8:26-27).

Accept where you are, trust what you have, begin where you can, be grateful for what you have (the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, collects and good liturgy, memorized, reliable words given to you by other Christian people), notice your longing for God, and patiently wait on the Lord.