- Posted by Fr. Jeremiah Shryock, CFR
- On August 9, 2017
- 4 Comments
The greatest experience I have of God is in silence. Even though, as a priest, much of my life is spent speaking about God, teaching and explaining God to others and reflecting on the mystery of God, it is silence that often times provides me with an experience of God that is unique.
At night I often reflect upon the events of the day and ask myself, “Did I say the right thing to this person? Did I listen to him? Did I give him correct advice? Did I explain the teachings of the Church clearly and in a way he could understand? I wish at the end of each day I could answer yes to those questions, however, my own humanity, with its fragility and weakness often wins. Were it not for my own deepening experience of God in silence I would succumb to despair and discouragement.
In the past few years I have been led to a way of prayer that at first glance might not appear like prayer at all. It does not consist of much speaking, thinking or reading. This way of prayer is more about being than anything else. There is no doing: no long prayers, petitions, novenas or reading. I am not looking for consolations, insights, answers to difficult questions or anything else. (Though if God chooses to give them I would not resist.) I am, quite simply, sitting in silence, or in other words, attempting to rest in Him beyond words, ideas and images.
When I speak about this way of prayer people often close their eyes as if they were savoring fresh cold water on a sweltering summer day. When their eyes open they look at me with a smile that seems to say, “This is what I need so desperately.” The reason they “need” it are the same reasons I do. We are distracted, noisy, confused, and torn in various directions. We are overwhelmed, anxious, insecure, afraid, and weak in the midst of countless temptations and endless change.
Despite how many spiritual books we read and prayers we recite this feeling of being tossed about at sea continues to increase. Even though we experience a reprieve at times with insights from Scripture, vocal prayer, the example of the saints, etc. there is still something more that we need. St. John of the Cross says that “Our greatest need is to be silent before this great God with the appetite and with the tongue, for the only language he hears is the silent language of love.”1 Silence before God is not only our greatest need; it is also our greatest teacher.
I am blessed to have time each day to devote to Scripture and spiritual reading. Though I would never dismiss this from my life, a few years ago I realized that no matter how much I read and study my knowledge and insights are in the end, limited. It was as if all my talking to God and thinking about God put me on the edge of a cliff. To get to the other side, however, I would need something else. That something else is silence.
I began to follow this inclination towards silence more and more each day. I would sit for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, sometimes even a whole hour, opening my heart to God in silence. When I would get tangled up in my thoughts, I would simply say the name of Jesus or Abba, or recite a short prayer from Scripture, such as “Come Lord Jesus,” (Revelation 22:20) “Speak Lord, your servant is listening,” (1 Samuel 3:9) “Draw me after you,” (Song of Songs 1:4) etc. so as to bring my attention back to the Lord with whom I was desiring just to be.
One of the first fruits that I discovered from praying in silence was the simple yet profound realization that I am not my thoughts. For almost my entire life I identified my self with my thoughts. If I felt lonely, afraid or inadequate than I identified myself with these things. Instead of being a child of God made in his image and likeness, I was whatever my thoughts were telling me simply because they appeared to be true. What silence has provided me with was the space to discover that my thoughts, like the passing clouds, are simply a facet about me and not the whole me. Beyond them, like the clouds, is a clear blue sky, the presence of God, in whom I discover my real identity.
The second fruit that I discovered from praying in silence is the nearness of God. Even though I knew in my mind that God dwelt inside of me I believe that subconsciously I lived most of my life believing that God was “out there,” hence, distant from me. God, in this mindset, is more like an alien, inhabiting some remote galaxy, rather than a loving Father who holds all creation in his hand. Through sitting in silence I have experienced that God does not live far away but is one in whom “we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
When I reflect upon my own relationship with God and ask myself what I desire the answer is simple: God. I don’t want just to think about God or talk about God, as necessary as both of those things are. I want God. Without silence not only do I become a slave to impulsive decisions, fear, competition, inordinate desires and anxiety but my perception and experience of God will be at best, immature. God is ultimately beyond our words, language and concepts and what I have discovered is that silence is a bridge leading to a deeper and more mature relationship with God.
In this deepening experience of God in silence I have encountered from the very depths of my being a God who is, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in mercy,” (Psalm 145:8) and not the distant, detached, dictator God that we, and our culture, often envision God to be.
Lest I fool myself into thinking I have discovered some mystical secret from ages past, the reality is I have discovered nothing new. God has been recommending this way of prayer from the beginning. He says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). In other words, silence leads to intimacy. Perhaps the reason I never heard this before was because I wasn’t listening.
Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR