On Silence In Prayer
After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine has enough presence of mind to pray: Noverim te, noverim me – that i would know you (God), i would know me. at sun rise every morning, before the labor* of reading, writing and painting, i work* to know God by working to know my self. light of knowing God through knowing self is a slow and progressive insight. for many years after my conversion to the same faith as Augustine, i have gotten it wrong about knowing God, for i sought to know God without finding the self.
I have read the parable of the lost many times but never reading it for its subtext of self awareness. Luke 15.17 reads that before the prodigal son comes close to his waiting father, he first has to come to himself. it is in self-recovery that discovers our experience with God. if i don’t know my self, then how can i know God. at first, it is a grievous thing to embrace this disparaging notion of human mystery. but in time, the disparagement becomes irresistibly a self-affirmation.
There is an irony in Augustine’s light – when i was younger in faith, i actually felt closer to God. i knew God better then – so i thought. that felt closeness came from immaturity, inexperience and self unawareness. i entered prayers with an uninformed confidence that was oblivious to self and God. my fealty is defined more by an ignorance of self, and of a false assurance of knowing God. then the disappointments of God’s hiddenness in my prayer life began to hedge me in. there were long spells when i could not pray because prayers felt like speaking into the air. the frustration is like talking with someone who does not talk back. during those long ministry years, i didn’t pray in private and yet prayed with all the aplomb of professionalism with my congregants in public.
At sunset, i recover prayers again. my prayers are out of and in silence. my imposed silence defines communion with God. at sunrise, i commune with God in an adapted version lectio divina. with my Bible i sit in silence and journal into a blank page. my scribbles fill a single sheet. this reflection is my most transparent exercise. my thoughts are unvarnished, unharnessed and roam unhindered. without any sense of propriety before the holy, often my thoughts are crude as they are stupid.
Out of the monastic movement, the desert fathers and mothers taught us – Be silent and pray. When i enter solitude to prayer, i enter into contemplation. In contemplation (Latin – with space), i practice the presence of God by sharing space with God. instead of speaking prayers, in quietude, i enter into listening prayer – paying attention to God, listening for God, watching for God, waiting for God.
An assigned passage of the Bible is read. i may read the passage many times with many translations that includes the Chinese. while the passage is opened to me, i rummage my thoughts and others’ light to illuminate my reflection. as i read and wait, insights become my divine light. like holding a bright candle to the sacred page. in this work of silence, the sacred text informs my mind, reforms my heart and forms my soul.
With the passage still opens before me, i retreat to the other side of my journal page. in contemplation i respond to God in written prayers. the assigned text guide my rambling thoughts like a guarding rail on a winding road. i empty my aching heart and troubled soul in earnest. as i am full from silence, so i empty myself in silence. after silent prayer, the remains of the day is another form of contemplation where i seek to share space with God in my coming in and going out. whether in solitude or in community, my contemplation with God is not always pretty nor pious, but always in the abiding presence of God.
*these are two of three ideas – work, labor and action – of Hannah Arendt’s fundamental meanings of being human in “The Human Condition”