In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.Mark 1:35
I am teaching a 5-week class on prayer at my congregation, and as I do so I am sharing a version of my handouts here on my blog. In our first week together, we looked at prayer through the lens of relationship. You can find the blog post based on that handout here: What Is Prayer, and How Can I Grow in My Life of Prayer? I also introduced the Divine Office in our first week together, which I have introduced on my blog here: What Is the Divine Office?
In our second week, we looked at the importance of solitude and silence in our lives of prayer. Here is a version of the handout that I shared.
Talk in prayer is essential but it is also partial. Silence is also essential.Eugene Peterson
Prayer, like any conversation, involves listening as much as talking. If we are going to pray, we must be willing to listen quietly for God’s “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). And if we are going to hear that voice, we must be silent. Silence is an essential element of our life of prayer. In fact, I have noticed that when I am struggling in prayer, it is often because I am not spending enough time in silence. That is when I remind myself to do as the Psalms teach: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation” (Psalm 62:1).
But it is not always easy to find silence in our noisy world. And even when we manage to find quiet moments in our day, silence can make us uncomfortable. We pick up our phone, turn on the tv, or distract ourselves in countless other ways. The truth is that we have many more ways to avoid silence than any generation before us. But silence is no less important now than ever, especially in our lives of prayer. So, let’s think about silence and its importance in prayer. And let’s look at ways to incorporate more silence into our life of prayer.
There are two types of silence needed in prayer: External silence and internal silence. External silence does not mean that there is no noise, but that the noise is not something we have to pay attention to. I used to have my “quiet time” on a train, for example, during my daily commute to Chicago. It was not quiet, but the noise around me was not something I needed to pay attention to. Of course, if I were surrounded by family and friends, or if I had a cell phone with me, there would have been noises that I could not ignore. External silence comes when we take a little time away from these things. To put it another way, what is really needed to have external silence is some form of solitude.
Jesus taught us by example one way to do this: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). That is one way to reduce external noise. Jesus also taught us another way: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). I took that instruction literally when my children were young, and went into our bedroom closet for my quiet time with God. Other ways to incorporate this kind of silence into our time of prayer might include going for a quiet, solitary walk, or spending quiet time in a favorite spot outdoors. Or, it might mean waking up a little earlier than others in our household, and enjoying that quiet time with God with our coffee or tea.
What are some ways that you can incorporate external silence into your time of prayer (or that you already do)?
Silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God everywhere – in the closing of the door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, in the animals.Mother Teresa
What about internal silence? For many of us, we find that as soon as we have managed to find a time and place with no external noise to distract us, our minds get to work, creating all kinds of internal noise. As soon as we find a little solitude, silence our phone, and catch our breath, we immediately think of endless other things that we should be doing – a text to return, an appointment to be made, an item to add to the grocery list, and on and on. Our minds can be very noisy! Finding internal silence can be just as challenging as finding external silence, but also just as essential to our life of prayer. So, how can we quiet our minds enough to begin to hear God’s still, small voice?
One way that can be helpful in quieting ourselves for prayer is through a simple, short “breath prayer.” This is a way of praying that is used by many Christians to quiet our minds and help us to hear God’s still, small voice. I often use the Jesus Prayer in this way: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” I pray “Lord Jesus Christ” as I breathe in, and “Have mercy on me” as I breathe out. (Sometimes I use “me” and sometimes I use “us.”)
Another breath prayer that I have used is from Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And in times of distress I have used these words from Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
A similar practice that can help to quiet our minds is a form of Christian meditation called Centering Prayer. It is a very simple practice. (Simple, but not easy!) Here are the guidelines for Centering Prayer:
- Choose a sacred word (or phrase) that symbolizes our desire to spend this time of silence with God.
- Sit comfortably, with our eyes closed, and silently invite God to be with us during this time. Then begin to silently repeat our sacred word or phrase.
- When our thoughts begin to drift, gently return to our word or phrase.
- At the end of the prayer period, silently pray the Lord’s Prayer or some other prayer.
(You can learn more about Centering Prayer as taught by Thomas Keating here: contemplativeoutreach.org/centering-prayer-method)
Think of a sacred word or phrase that you might use in breath prayer or Centering Prayer, and then try it at the beginning of your quiet time with God. Begin by spending 5 or so minutes doing this, and then experiment with an amount of time that works best for you. (Thomas Keating recommends 20 minutes for the practice of Centering Prayer.)
Our Bible study group shared in a time of silent prayer for 5 minutes and then talked over our experience together. It was a wonderful gift to me to introduce these practices, and to share in our silent prayer together. May you, too, be blessed by the gifts of solitude silence, and by sharing in prayer with a Christian community.
11 thoughts on “Silence, Solitude, and Prayer”
Very helpful. I think I often struggle more with internal silence – and yet while we are still fussing internally it is hard to hear the still, small voice of calm.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation”. Amen!
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Thank you, this is very helpful.
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I had forgotten about breath prayer. Thank you for the reminder.
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Solitude and silence were transforming for me during my decades of mission work in Côte d’Ivoire. I worked in Bible translation so words were flooding my mind, in more than one language. Community is highly valued, so there were lots of visits from friends in the evenings. I was overwhelmed with “noise.” I found a way to be alone in my yard for three hours on Saturdays, warning my friends to only interrupt me if the need was urgent. It took a while, each time, for the “mud puddle to settle.” But then I found that I was open to hearing what the Lord wanted to say to me, in that quiet space. I kept a journal, and many times it was poetry that came from my pen. That is what I put together in a book last year, _When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey_. I can tell that we have journeyed in similar ways!
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That’s so interesting – poetry was what emerged for me during the early days of the pandemic, when I had extra time to devote to silence and prayer.
I hope that your book blesses many, and helps your readers to listen in their quiet space for God’s still, small voice.