As soon as one sits down and attempts to enter into silent prayer they will immediately recognize the busyness of their mind. We are constantly thinking about everything imaginable; what I am going to eat tonight for dinner, a conversation I had two weeks ago with a friend, a situation at work or home, an insecurity or a fear I may possess, what other people think of me, etc, are just a few examples of the countless thoughts that bombard our minds daily. Though our minds are a great gift to us from God and should be used accordingly during times of discursive prayer, study and reflection on Scripture the time of silent prayer is a time where we try to “lay aside our thoughts” about God and desire to just be with God. The simple reason for this is that though our thoughts, even about God, can be good and helpful, they are limited. As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing states, “thought cannot comprehend God…It is laudable to reflect upon God’s kindness and to love and praise him for it; yet it is far better to let your mind rest in the awareness of him in his naked existence.”10
In order to rest in this “awareness of God,” a certain quieting of our minds needs to occur. The simple advice often given is to give your mind something to do, not another project, idea, fear or insecurity to entertain but a simple prayer that sums up your heart’s desire in your relationship with God. That prayer, sometimes referred to as a “prayer word,” could be one word 11, or a short phrase, usually derived from Scripture 12 or daily life 13. During the time of silent prayer one simply says this prayer when distractions arise so as to bring one’s attention back to God and not on our own thoughts and distractions. The “prayer word” then is like a cry from the depths of one’s heart to God. Even though we may get distracted quite often during the time of silent prayer when we return to our “prayer word” we are returning to our original intention of opening ourselves up fully to God and His presence in and around me.
It must be understood that the practice of silent prayer is not something one can accomplish by one’s own efforts. However, there are ways to dispose oneself to receive this gift, if and when God desires. Just as a gardener has to complete some preparatory work (digging up the ground, planting the seeds, etc) for his garden to grow, so to we have some preparatory work to do in our time of silent prayer. The main work we have to do for the gift of silent prayer is to dispose ourselves, i.e. open ourselves up as best we can, to God. The best way for us to do this is through the use of a “prayer word.” What our “prayer word” is saying in the time of silent prayer is, “Here I am God…distracted, confused, anxious, afraid, etc, but I give myself to you.”
Fr John Main writes that the purpose of the prayer word is to “lead you away from your own thoughts, your own ideas, your own desire, your own sin and to lead you into the presence of God, by turning you around, by turning you away from yourself towards God.”14 This disposition of turning away from oneself and towards God is not only necessary in silent prayer but is the condition of genuine discipleship. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”15 In silent prayer, with the help of the prayer word, we seek to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.
INDEX: 10 The Cloud of Unknowing, 46. 11 Such as “God,” “Jesus,” “Father,” “Abba,” etc. 12 A few examples could be: “Come Lord Jesus,” (Rv 22:17), “Speak Lord, your servant is listening,” (1 Sam 3:10),
“Draw me after you,” (Song 1:4) “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” (Lk 18:13) “You God, I seek,” (Ps 63:1) “Show me
your glory,” (Ex 33:18) “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28) “Here I am,” (Gn 22:1) “Rabboni” (Jn 20:16) 13 “Jesus, I love you,” “Come Holy Spirit,” “Who are you God?” “Jesus, help me,” etc. 14 John Main, Moment of Christ, 17.
15 Matthew 16:24
Appendix 2: Group sharing
Group sharing is a fundamental aspect of the silent prayer retreat. Every night of the retreat the group will gather together to simply “share” their experience of God in their prayer that day. It is not a time to “theologize or philosophize,” to counsel, analyze or judge other people nor is it a time to confess one’s sins to a group. It is simply a time to share with one another “how things are going.”
The best answer to that question is the most honest one. Trying to “look” holy, sound intelligent or hide behind other kinds of masks will only prohibit us from experiencing more deeply the presence of God in and around us and will only intensify the illusion that God is distant from us. Wherever there is honesty and genuine humility the presence of God is close by. Hence, group sharing is not meant to increase the size of our ego but to increase our awareness that all of us, saints and sinners, are essentially the same and the journey to God includes many twists and turns as we attempt to walk in this world “by faith, not by sight.”16 There are five essential reasons for group sharing:
1. It causes me to articulate religious experience. Since I am “encouraged” to share what is happening in my relationship with God through silent prayer I must ask myself questions such as: What is God saying to me? How am I responding to God? Am I am hiding or avoiding Him? If so, why? Such questions, though they may be difficult at times can only help to strengthen one’s relationship with God in the long run.
2. Listening to other people’s desire for God, their struggles and joys with him encourages us and reminds us that we are not alone. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”17 The group sharing experience emphasizes the fact that “no man is an island.” As we listen to one another’s experience of God we can begin to look at one another as brothers and sisters on the same journey.
3. Group sharing encourages vulnerability. Even though this is difficult vulnerability is a quality that leads to genuine humility, which will help me in all my relationships, whether it is with God, family or friends.
4. Group sharing provides me with the opportunity to step out of my own world and into the world of another. Most of my experience in group sharing will be listening, hopefully not to one’s own plans, ideas, judgments, etc, but those of our neighbor. By deep and compassionate listening to another, I am giving the gift of seeing a world that does not have “me” at the center.
5. Group sharing can “soften” the intensity that could occur on a silent retreat without losing the focus and spirit of the retreat. For many, silence can and will be difficult at times. The group sharing recognizes our need for others while at the same time not “checking out” of the intention of the retreat, thus enabling us to return to the silence strengthened and consoled by the witness of others.