Recently, I’ve restarted my daily practice of silent prayer. Like many who try this practice, I feel an immense amount of resistance arising within me against my intention. But that’s not a good reason to avoid the practice. What we truly and deeply desire is often quite different from what we prefer or feel like doing in a particular, narrow little moment.
What seems to work for me is to set a 25-minute timer on my smartphone and then turn it facedown so I’m not distracted about time. I choose a comfortable seat in our library, and I try to sit up straight and relaxed.
Concentrating on my inhaling and exhaling helps to focus my attention. In time with my breathing, I like to repeat in my mind the phrases of the Jesus Prayer rooted in the Orthodox tradition:
Often I find that my mind has wandered, and I have to gently and graciously return to my practice. That’s part of the training. Distracting thoughts are inevitable when we are still and silent, but it’s good if our first moment of prayer is listening rather than speaking.
I find encouragement for this practice in a line of scripture that comes from the prophet Habakkuk:
The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him. (2:20)
It helps to recognize that Habakkuk is talking to people who have a habit of worshiping idols. Everyday people just like you and me. Our idol worship may not involve a physical statue or anything like that, but people are often idol factories.
Just before Habakkuk’s call to silence before God, he asks,
What profit is an idol
when its maker has shaped it,
a metal image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in his own creation
when he makes speechless idols.
Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
to a silent stone, Arise!
Can this teach?
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
and there is no breath at all in it. (2:18-19 ESV)
Habakkuk’s urging that we be silent before the true God is the opposite of idolatry. Instead of creating our own gods, we acknowledge in silence that we are the ones who have been created. Instead of us giving value to our gods, our God gives value to us. Instead of using our energy to create inert gods, we quietly and humbly acknowledge that God makes us and sustains us with a powerful word.
Habakkuk is saying, “Be quiet. Stop talking to idols as if they can hear you. The Lord is the one who speaks. Be quiet and listen to him.”
This is the purpose of silence. It is a place to stop talking and begin listening. We don’t listen enough these days. Too often we talk at God or to ourselves or past one another. How powerful it would be if our words were more rooted in humble, silent listening.