Seven Blessings of Silent Prayer

Why Contemplation Matters — For All People of Faith

shutterstock_279446354Silent prayer — contemplative prayer, what the Catholic Catechism calls “wordless prayer in which mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration” — is an important element of a mature Christian spirituality. The Bible instructs us to “be still and know… God” (Psalm 46:10), and even promises us that “silence is praise” (Psalm 65:1, translated literally).

I thought it might be helpful to reflect on the many ways that contemplation brings blessing into our lives. I’m a little hesitant about this, because I don’t think silent prayer is meant to be goal-oriented; it is not a means to an end. In a very real way, contemplation is its own reward, and the only reason to enter into prayerful silence is for the felicity of offering ourselves and our time to God, without any “benefit” or “advantage” coming from it.

Nevertheless, in just a few minutes of reflection I came up with seven real graces that flow from a regular discipline of contemplative silence. So here is my life — but please read this with the understanding that there is only one real purpose of contemplation: to give ourselves to God. Everything else is merely a happy blessing — not a consequence, not a result — simply a grace that accompanies our response to God’s loving silence.

  1. Contemplation brings us into the mystery of God. The Bible acknowledges that God is a “hidden” God (Isaiah 45:15) — in other words, to the finite limitations of human mind, God seems shrouded in mystery. We can no more wrap our minds around the Holy One than an amoeba can comprehend a human. But where our logic and rationality ultimately fail us, our heart — our capacity to love and be loved — stands ready to encounter the Divine source of all Love. When we offer our prayer to God in wordless silence, we create the space within us for our heart to take the lead in prayer, receiving grace and offering adoration at a level too deep for words. We may not “understand” silence, but in our heart of hearts, we can know the God who comes to us in mystery.
  2. Silence teaches us to trust. It is human nature to want to be in control, in charge, on top of things. That’s certainly appropriate on a purely earthly level — but God is not subject to our management or direction. Yet how often, when we pray, do we in fact subtly try to bend God’s will to our own, rather than radically surrendering our will to God? The beauty of contemplation is that, by dispensing with words, we move into a place where we simply have no means to attempt to control God or shape our prayer to what we think is our best advantage. Stripped of all artifice of self-directed mastery, silence in prayer offers us only one option: to trust the God who loves us, hidden in the silence. We trust what we cannot see, may not feel, and certainly cannot manipulate. It’s hard, but it’s spiritually nurturing to do so.
  3. Contemplation allows us to pray when we have no words to pray. Christianity is a talkative religion, from the Bible to our endless lineage of hymns, sermons, liturgies, and inspirational books. But sometimes even the most eloquent person can’t find the words to express what’s going on in our hearts. Silent prayer releases us from the necessity to be “on ” all the time, to find just the right Psalm or devotional to recite, or (harder still) to be able to put into our own words what’s going on in the hidden places deep within our soul. With contemplation, we offer God our attention, our presence, our very self – without having to wrap it up in a lot of commentary. We simply rest in God’s presence, and that becomes the heart of our prayer.

  4. Silence helps us to imitate Christ.
    One of the loveliest passages in the New Testament recounts how Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7) — the Greek word for emptiness used here, kenosis, has become emblematic of Christ’s humble compassion in embracing humanity in the incarnation. How can we, who are already human, follow his example? In contemplation, we divest ourselves of our chattering minds, embracing silence as a kind of “emptiness” in which we make ourselves available for God. So in wordless prayer, we offer to God our desire to follow Christ in all ways — even in humility and emptiness.
  5. Contemplation undermines the idols of our culture. Dare I say it? Contemplation is countercultural — even (gasp) “subversive.” Our society idolizes the left hemisphere of the brain — linear logic, a way of thinking that judges everything in binary ways: this is good, that is bad; this is right, that is wrong; this is acceptable, that is forbidden. Such dualistic ways of thinking and judging influence the way we do business, politics, science, and even art and religion. Logic has its place, of course, but for society to be whole and complete, the stern judgment of abstract reason must be balanced by the holistic compassion of the heart. In silence, the heart communicates its way of knowing, and thereby prevents the black/white dualism of the mind from dominating our lives — and our faith.
  6. Silence is good for us, body, mind and soul. The mindfulness movement has offered a secular approach to this particular blessing. My first Christian meditation teacher used to say “meditation is something that is good for our body, our mind, and our soul.” Because in a faith context contemplation is prayer, naturally it nourishes the soul; because it invites us into a place of trust and nondual awareness (see #2 and #5 above), silence is good for our mind, and because it encourages deep relaxation and gentle awareness of our bodies, it is good for us physically as well. Indeed, this “prayer of the heart” is perhaps the most fully embodied way of praying within Christianity: a prayer where we offer our entire self to God — body as well as mind and soul.
  7. Contemplation fosters community. We often think of this prayer in solitary terms — “when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Matthew 6:6). But in many contexts, from Christian monasteries down to the centering prayer groups our out time, we see that contemplative or silent forms of prayer thrive especially well in communal settings. This is because there is something profoundly intimate and bonding when we pray silently together. Just as Eucharistic worship and the Daily Office help to form community, praying together in wordless silence also helps to foster a sense of belonging to the Body of Christ. And this works both ways: when communities pray in silence together, it helps the individuals to have a stronger commitment to contemplation.

shutterstock_139139795As I said above, I drew up this list fairly quickly, and so I imagine there are other blessings that could be added to this list. Can you think of ways that silent prayer has blessed you? Please leave your thoughts as a comment here on this blog, or in social media. Thank you, and may your daily practice of silent prayer thrive in the light of God’s loving grace.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

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11 thoughts on “Seven Blessings of Silent Prayer

  1. The joy and peace found within prayerful silence is remarkable, rich, and life changing. Once discovered, it has the capacity within its practice to open our thinking to a greater awareness of God, His Presence, and truth. I am particularly surprised but pleased that you included #5. The closer we come to God through contemplation and worship, the more we are defined by His ways and Being. The peace, love, and joy slips into us in a phenomenal way (through the silence). Thank you.

  2. Carl: Any advice on how to go about finding a Christian Meditation teacher? I did read your big book on Christian Mysticism (which was incredible and thank you), but I don’t recall specific pointers on finding a teacher (perhaps there were, so sorry if I’ve forgotten). As you mentioned in the book, mysticism is not really “mainstream” in our parishes, and so neither are its teachers. They seem hard to find. The priests are overworked just administering sacraments and running the parish. Besides, the priest may not be much interested in mysticism. Also, it seems such a choice of teacher would be akin to choosing a doctor or a psychologist, not someone who is assigned to you.

    • Paul, finding a personal teacher or instructor is very difficult. The tradition has been so thwarted for so long. A couple of ideas to consider: 1) inquire at a monastery or convent to see if they have anyone willing to work with a layperson; 2) consider working with a spiritual director (see Spiritual Directors International for an ecumenical directory of spiritual directors); 3) participate in a centering prayer group sponsored by Contemplative Outreach, where at least you will be exposed to videos of Fr. Thomas Keating’s teaching; 4) look at online resources, such as Richard Rohr’s Living School; 5) see if a venue in your community will invite me to come lead a retreat (in the absence of a personal teacher, making retreats with a contemplative presenter is the next best thing). If you live in the Atlanta area, contact me directly via my contact page, as I have some other suggestions that are Atlanta-specific. Blessings to you!

  3. Hi Carl, thank you so much for these wonderful insights. I am going to use some of them in a group i started in order to discuss contemplation/silence as a personal experience and also within the structure of the Mass. This is to do with a project that is part of a diploma of religious studies i am doing. I have been very inspired by some of your comments and articles and would love to invite you to speak at our group, but i live in New Zealand, so it’s probably a bit far. I wonder about some ways of getting into silence and have tried using a mantra, focussing on a phrase, and entering into a biblical scene. Although this might not be the silence you are talking about. Would that be more like the prayer of quiet, i think, that St Teresa of Avila talks about. I really like her four stages of prayer – the well, the trough, the streams and the rain. And can only hope to eventually be able to pray/contemplate without needing words, images etc. Thanks so much, Anne Sunde

    • Anne, this question (using words in the context in silent prayer) is something I hope to write about in the near future, maybe even this week, so stay tuned! I would love to come to New Zealand; there’s someone in Adelaide, Australia who wants to bring me to Australia. Maybe we need to arrange for me to have a tour of the southern hemisphere!

  4. Thank you for being a spokesperson on the need for silent prayer midst the noise.
    In his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey touches on the subject of silent communion. He states, “In the modern world we are drowning in words. Each day we are bombarded with thousands of billboards, ads, letters, magazines, newspapers, television commercials, radio broadcasts, spam, catalogs, junk mail, phone calls, text messages, faxes and endless email. One can no longer sit in a doctor’s office without having thousands of words poured uninvited into the ears. Recently I sat in the departure lounge of an international airport inundated with words. At one time, I could clearly hear seven cell phone conversations, two televisions, a public announcement and three departure announcements. It was the first circle of hell.”
    Bailey goes on to say about the prayers of Jesus: “On the one hand the prayers of Jesus, recorded in the Gospels, are quite short. On the other hand those same Gospels relate that occasionally Jesus prayed all night. This raises the question of the nature of prayer. Did prayer for Jesus include long periods of Spirit-filled silent communion with God that was beyond the need for words?
    The Fathers of the Eastern Churches certainly thought so. In the seventh century,
    Isaac the Syrian wrote about “stillness,” which in his writings has been summarized as a “deliberate denial of the gift of words for the sake of achieving inner silence, in the midst of which a person can hear the presence of God. It is standing unceasingly
    silent, and prayerfully before God.”
    This blog and Bailey’s words are helpful reminders and encouragers to be more attentive to the practice of silence as a means to “HEAR” the PRESENCE OF GOD.
    And I am grateful for your book, Befriending Silence, which helps in that endeavor.

  5. Thank you, Carl, for this which speaks to my deepest self. I think my middle name is “contemplation/reflection” for that is where I find myself each morning. Nothing required of me except to be there, show up. I wondered if you would mind if I printed this particular reflection for a presentation I was asked to give to the DOK chapter at my parish, Annunciation? I was approached over a month ago, before Lent, and I immediately considered using Psalm 62:1 as a starting point. “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” I want to use your reflection as one of another suggested readings as well as cite you as a resource. One of the moments I had with contemplative silence was a sense of being transformed/transported (even though I knew where I was) was after an EfM session. Suddenly I had an overwhelming peace, a feeling that there was only Love. No need for war, no need for anger, no need for worry. Only Love and deepest recognition and nurture of myself from God who knows us. Needless to say, it was very powerful. Carl, I am grateful for your writings. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Ann. I’m happy for you to print out content from my blog to share with your community; all I ask is that you be sure to identify me as the author and provide a link back to my blog for those who want to explore further. Many thanks!

  6. Contemplation found me about 6 months ago and it’s the best thing that has happened to me. Yes, to all your blessings mentioned. I’ve noticed that I’ve become calmer and less bothered by things – even my dad has commented that I’ve become more relaxed!

    I would add that Contemplation helps one to tune out of the world – a world which judges us on how we look, how we perform and the things we own. And over time I believe we carry our silence into the world and are no longer so bothered by the judgements of the world.

    Contemplation also helps us to know that we are God’s beloved, deeply loved and secure in the divine. Knowing this from sitting in silence and apparantly doing nothing, helps us to know that we are loved for who we are and not what we do or what we own – again, this helps us to stop listening to the world’s narrative, our worth comes from God which is higher than the world. It also frees us to then act out of love and not for reward or approval. We are able to reach out and help others because of the love that is poured into us and not because we are trying to please God or avoid hell (for those that believe in hell as an option).

    Thank you so much for your blog posts – I’m a lone contemplative at the moment, although am in the process of trying to find a spiritual director/guide – it’s so helpful to have easy to digest thoughts and pointers on contemplation.