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Silent Prayer

Brian Cleeve 2001


The idea of Silent Prayer is as old as Christianity. Prayer does not need to involve recitations, or requests for favours, or even expression of remorse. Prayer can include any or all of these forms, but according to St. Teresa of Avila, Silent Prayer is best, for those who find it satisfies their hunger for communication with God.

Its meaning is simple; to listen to God, exactly as you would listen on the telephone to someone, or for someone whose words you long to hear. The words, the awareness of God’s Presence, might not come immediately, but if you listen in the right state of mind, you will not have to wait very long. And even if you did have to wait what would seem to you a long time, what better way could you spend your time of prayer?

Providing of course that your state of mind truly is what it should be. Not necessarily in a state of Grace — which of us can claim to be? — but receptive. If you are listening in the strong hope of being told something you very much want to hear, you may hear it, but it won’t be from God.

When we listen we must be prepared to hear what God wishes us to hear, even if it is painful, rather than what we hope to hear. Our minds need to be free of desire, and as far as possible free of thoughts.

There may be times for contemplation, meditation, or interior confession of our sins directly to God, but Silent Prayer is not one of those times. The emphasis is on silence, stillness of mind, openness to God’s Voice and Will. It is as if one’s mind was a still and silent lake, its surface mirror smooth, reflecting the moonlight.

God may speak to us at other times, no matter what we are doing. To attract our attention, warn us, call us. But in Silent Prayer we are inviting God to come to us, enter us, stay with us as our most honoured, most longed for guest.

And then? Everyone’s experience may be different. Each occasion may be different. St. Paul writes of a man he knew — surely himself — who was lifted up into the third Heaven, “but in what body I know not”. St. Teresa of Avila was pierced to the heart by an angelic spear.

You and I may not have such experiences, how could we expect them? But I know people who have received extraordinary graces, not because they deserved them, but because they allowed them to happen. And that again is the key to Silent Prayer, that acceptance, that receptivity, the patience to wait for God to come to you.

Jesus says “Knock and it shall be opened to you, ask and you shall be answered.” That is true, but it comes later. First comes the quietness, the stillness, the waiting. For what? For God to tell you what? His Will. Her Will.

I say Her, not because God is a woman, any more than God is a man, but in an attempt to correct an imbalance in my own thinking. The masculine bias of Christianity embedded in anyone brought up as a Christian. God the Father, God the Son. I have heard priests claim that the Holy Spirit is male. A completely masculine Trinity must surely be wrong, the result of centuries of masculine prejudice and arrogance, and priestly suspicion and fear of women, of Woman the Temptress. Mary the Mother of God, yes, but reluctantly, subordinate to Her Son, a lesser Being, de-sexed, de-womanised.

But that may be only my prejudice, and if I think of God as Her, as She, there is no reason for you to agree with me. What matters is to believe that God loves us, longs to speak to us, to tell us His/Her Will, Her plans for us, for how we are to become good, good enough to enter Heaven, to be with Her for ever.

To know what those plans are, how we are to obey Her Will for us, we must listen to Her. It is useless to tell Her our plans, our wishes. It is a wise saying that the worst thing that can happen to us is to have our wishes granted.

At the very best our plans for our spiritual success are imperfect. God’s plans for us are perfect, no matter what we might think of them when we first hear them. You remember Isaiah’s vision, recounted in Chapter 6 of his book?

At first he sat in terror at being in the presence of God. “I am a man of unclean lips; I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and here I am looking upon the face of the Lord my God”. But one of the Seraphim takes a burning coal from a brazier and purifies his lips. “Now you may look upon the face of God”.

Isaiah sits listening, in silence, as the discussion between God and the Seraphim continues, until God says “Whom shall we send?” Then Isaiah says “Here I am. Send me”.

But the task is not what he expects. He is to tell his people truths, but they will not listen, nor understand. He asks how long this is to continue. “Until only a holy seed remains.” The fewest of the few who will at last be ready to obey God.

All that we need to know to direct us in our spiritual life is contained in the few verses of this chapter of Isaiah.

The purification we need from God’s forgiveness of our sins. The silent listening. Then our offer of obedience to God’s Will. “Send me”. The readiness to accept God’s Will no matter how it differs from what we expect it to be. Then the doing, the carrying of God’s Truth to the world.

In Isaiah’s case this had to be done openly. In most cases, God wishes it to be secretly, as St. Therese of Lisieux did, hidden in her convent. Only after her death did the world become aware of her and her secret holiness.

This, almost certainly, is what God wants of you. To serve Her, obey Her, not by what you do, and people see, but what you are, what She helps and encourages you to become, good. To become a lit candle in a dark place, to give Her light so that other people can find their way to Her.

They will never know that they owe a debt to you, that it is you who offered them light. No more than a traveller at night asks himself who provided the solitary street lamp at this or that dark corner. You must not look for recognition, or admiration, or any kind of reward. The reward is the knowledge that you are trying to serve God. What greater reward could there be?

Here you may be asking, why should you listen, seek to hear, obey, become or seek to become holy? There are two answers. One, by far the most important, is that it is right. It is what we should all do, like obeying the law, taking care of our families, following a sensible diet. It is why we are here.

The second, far less important reason is that it can lead to our personal salvation. This is the less important reason because it is like thinking of a reward for doing what is our simple duty. But it is a reason, however secondary. Nowadays there is an immense misunderstanding about salvation, within that minority that still believes it to be something real.

This misunderstanding is the belief that salvation is almost automatic, our due, like an old age pension, and that one would need to do something really dramatic in order to forfeit it.

None of that is true. Certainly most people will in the end reach Eternal Rest — which is not at all the same as Heaven – but before they do, they may face a dreadful journey, down and down to Despair, before at last they accept God’s Mercy. That will not be a punishment imposed by God. She never punishes anyone. But She does allow us to punish ourselves.

We can do this in any of many ways, but all of them involve the rejection of God, Her Will, Her Love, Her Mercy. You wonder how anyone could? Easily. You see it all round you. The clever people who say “There is no God” or those who complain that Free Will is a tyrant’s trick and seek true freedom, as they conceive of it, in defiance of God. But the great majority reject God because they choose to worship themselves instead of God; their own will instead of Hers.

They follow their desires, and persuade themselves that their desires are innocent. They may even be innocent. But they are still not Her perfect wishes as to what they should do, and become, how they should think, what they should seek to understand.

All human goodness, every good intention, unselfish thought is of value. As if during our lives we were gathering savings, gathering Grace to help us on our eventual journey to Her. But the true currency for that journey is not what we think is good, but what She knows is good.

Which brings us back to the central purpose, the only true purpose of Silent Prayer; to discover God’s Will, Her desires for us, Her wishes. Those three are not identical. All Her desires are for our perfection, our holiness. But since we are far from perfect and holy, Her wishes are that we allow Her to teach us how to become perfect, reach holiness.

Her Will is different again. It is that we accept those things that we cannot understand as nevertheless being woven into Her plans for our redemption.

Whether it is the Holocaust or an individual act of cruelty, She makes use of all that happens, it becomes Her Will that it should have happened, and what to us is inexplicable evil serves Her ultimate purpose.

This too we can begin to understand as we listen to Her and She teaches us. Knock and it shall be opened. Ask and it shall be answered. And when the door has been opened, all the questions have been answered, what lies beyond, in the depths of the silence? The passionate surrender of all that you are, your self. This is the mysterious destination where all else leads. To cease to be you, separate from God, but to lose your self in God.

This is the ultimate terror for each of us, to cease to be me, that precious self that is unique, different somehow from every other self. How can we let go of it, surrender it to God? It is as if we were floating in the sea, and the sea whispered to us, “Dissolve in Me, become part of Me. Cease to be you. Become Me”.

What will be left of us? Will we be lost for ever in Her immensity? Who can tell? And yet, Beloved, dearest of Ladies, dearest God, let me make this last surrender. And in the depths of this infinite silence there is the final, most wonderful prayer — not “Here I am. Send me”. But “Here I am. Take me. Into Your Light”.

Will it be agony? Beyond all agonies. All the pains of death. And in the pain the sweetness of that surrender. Love beyond all love. Until there is only love, only passion, passionate surrender to Her, the Beloved.

The two questions, how may I serve You, and what must I do to be saved are really the two sides of the same question, because in obeying and serving God you are saving yourself, or that part of your inner being that is worth saving. “In the work is the reward.”

Much more than what you should do, you and I and everyone need to learn what we need to become. ‘Being’ taking precedence over ‘doing’. You cannot, or at least should not, set out to do anything before you learn how. If you want to cook good meals, you need to become a good cook. If you want to heal the sick you need to become a doctor, of one kind or another. And when you have become a doctor, you won’t say “I do doctoring”. You will say “I am a doctor; or carpenter or cook or dustman”.

The greatest privilege She can ever grant to anyone is the right to say “I am attempting to become Her servant.”

What does that attempt involve? First, before all else of course, listening. Every servant must listen to her Master, his Mistress. Then, hearing. And patience, as we wait to hear, wait on Her decision to speak to us. It involves learning to free ourselves from desire, even what we think of as “good” desires, as if we knew what is good, without the need to ask God if it is Her goodness.

Before you object too strongly to the suggestion that you may not know what is really good, remember the ancient saying, that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The history of “good works” is scarred from beginning to end with catastrophes.

To take one example, Christian missionaries in the South Seas forced their converts to wear clothes. Of course they must! The shame of nakedness! It must be an offence to God, quite apart from being an offence to the female missionaries.

But wearing wet clothes after a rain storm brought on colds, pneumonia, and eventually tuberculosis. The same Christian “modesty” wiped out the entire population of Tierra del Fuego at the southern-most tip of South America.

In Africa, Christian insistence that polygamy was sinful left numberless African women destitute when their husbands embraced monogamy and expelled their younger or secondary wives from their protection.

Generous First World aid to the Third Word includes a catalogue of disasters; enterprises that did immense harm instead of the intended good. Beyond the generalities of the Ten Commandments we can never be sure what is really good, unless and until God tells us it is.

Therefore we must listen with completely open minds to whatever She may choose to tell us. But here must come the strongest of warnings. When we agree to obey God, it is never to be blind obedience, that “corpse-like obedience” praised by certain religious Orders. Although we cannot know for certain what is good, we must never blindly accept what She tells us is good. She may be tempting us to forego the use of our own faculties of reason and conscience.

We need to become certain that what She tells us to do or believe is truly what She wishes. If something arouses our suspicion, offends our intelligence or conscience, we must question Her further. “Is this truly Your Holy Will? And even if She says again “Yes!” we should ask Her, “May I do — or think or believe — the opposite?”

If She says, “No, I insist that this is truly My Will”, then we should believe Her, yet still need to understand it. We need to ask Her to explain. And in doing so to inform our consciences…

The Church requires us to possess “informed consciences” by which it means “informed by Church teaching”. What God means by an informed conscience is one that is informed by Her teaching. And that we receive that by asking questions of Her, and striving to understand Her answers.

A simple example is that of the missionaries in the South Seas. If they had had a belief in Silent Prayer, and the possibility of hearing God, they would have asked Her before insisting on the islanders adopting the neck to ankle gowns for women known as “Mother Hubbards”. They would have been complacently sure that these converts must wear some clothes, but perhaps not this exact design?

When God replied, as She would have done, that they should leave the women (and men) to go naked, as they always had done in their innocent paganism, the missionaries would have been outraged, certain that an evil spirit was intervening, that perhaps it never had been God speaking to them, but instead it had been the Father of Lies, seeking to mislead their Evangelical piety!

But if – and of course it is an enormous IF – they had had the humility to ask further questions, and the intelligence to receive and understand the answers, She would have explained that what the missionaries wanted to do was simply wrong. It was physically destructive, leading to illness and eventually death, and spiritually valueless.

A naked body, in a warm, generous climate, is not in the least shameful. The evil is in the prurient imagination of the observer. If God had been asked, listened to and obeyed, the islanders would have been left in healthy nakedness, and countless untimely deaths and unnecessary illnesses would have been avoided.

Therefore in Silent Prayer, in listening, asking, hearing, never assume that you know what the answer must be in such or such a case. That an unexpected answer must come from evil. Maybe it does, but it is essential to discover whether it does, or whether it is God and the unexpected answer is one that you need to understand and accept.

But when do you practise Silent Prayer? Earlier I described it as one of several kinds of prayer. There are sincerely devout people who find it impossible. They need verbal prayers, recitations of known, formal words. One of her nuns told St. Teresa of Avila that this was her difficulty.

“Then pray with words”, the future saint told the nun. “For you, that can lead to perfection.”

But for those who find themselves increasingly at ease with Silent Prayer, it becomes their constant practice. And “constant” is the correct word. Every waking minute is devoted to Silent Prayer, listening, hearing, asking, being answered, seeking ever deeper understanding, ever more passionate obedience to what they understand.

Yet how is this possible? Even in a convent, a monastery, there are “practical”, material demands on one’s time. Work to do, meals to eat, other people demanding one’s attention. And this essay is not for those living an enclosed religious life, supported by the rules and structure of a Religious Order.

It is being written for people in the world, earning a living, leading a “normal” secular life. For such people, for you and me in fact — how could it be possible to “pray all day”, silently or otherwise? An hour a day would be a wonder. Ten minutes a possibility.

The answer lies in learning to do two things at the same time. Most of us do this without realising it or giving it any thought. Driving to work we think about last night’s party, or to night’s visit to the gym or what we’ll do during our lunch break.

Or while we’re getting a family meal ready we’re thinking about a film we want to see, or watching the TV set, or listening to music on the radio. We find this division of our attention so ordinary, so easy, but we don’t recognise it for what it is, the ability to divide our attention without neglecting either object of the division.

This is how you can practise Silent Prayer all day, all your waking hours and moments. You keep your mind open to Her Voice even while carrying out material duties or relaxing in ordinary ways.

It is like listening to a radio, for some item that you wish to hear. “Listening with one ear”, while the other ear listens to the affairs of this world. Then the waited for radio item — the Voice, Her Voice that you have been waiting for, engages your whole attention. If you had not been listening in that patient way you would have missed it. She never raises Her Voice, never insists, never demands your attention. You give it of your Free Will, or withhold it. But if you withhold it too long, She may stay away, never return.

What madness that would be on your part!

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