Silent Prayer #2 - Lent 2023 - Fr. Angus Ritchie
I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to watch the anglers fishing in Shadwell Basin. They look both relaxed and alert. When you are fishing, you can’t allow your mind to drift off. You’ve got to be ready for when a fish is biting on the bait, and reel them in. But you can’t do anything to make the fish come. Once you have cast the rod in the water you simply have to wait attentively, often for a very long time.
The ability to wait attentively is vital for the Christian life. The Christian Year begins with Advent, because like Mary we need to wait on God, ready (often after a long time of silence) to hear his voice and to respond to his call. Mary waits, hears the voice of the angel, and responds in faith - and Jesus is born among us.
It’s right that we long for God’s kingdom, right that we long to be better people, right that we long for more of God’s love, God’s healing, God’s justice. But we must begin, like Mary, by waiting to see where God’s Spirit is at work. So, like those anglers in Shadwell Basin, we need to be alert; we need to pay attention, but we do not need to be tense or anxious. We cannot hurry God.
The prophet Isaiah tells us “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” and goes on to say “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30.15,18). God is so patient that he waits for us to learn to be patient! It’s when we stop running around, imagining that everything will be accomplished in our part by our initiative, that we can see where the Lord is at work. He waits patiently for us to learn this. And when we finally learn to wait on God, our discipleship become more deeply fruitful.
So how does silent prayer help us learn this habit of attentive waiting? As we pray the Jesus prayer (which I described in my last talk), we learn to delight in God’s presence. As we follow Jesus, as we work for justice, adoration must come before action.
I can’t underline enough that it really doesn’t matter how this time of silence feels. When you exercise for the first time, it is hard work, and you may ache a bit afterwards because you are exercising new physical muscles. For most of us, waiting patiently attentively is like exercising new spiritual muscles. As I said last week, our thoughts swarm around like bees, and we may end our time of prayer frustrated by how much buzzing there has been. But if we persevere, the witness of countless Christians across the centuries is that this does bear rich fruit, for us and for God’s Kingdom.
As I did last week, let me end with some practicalities.
We pray as people with bodies and so how we how we are with our bodies affects the way we pray. The posture of our bodies in prayer can help draw us into this attitude of attentive waiting. We need to sit or kneel in a way that is not tense, but also isn’t slouching. If we are sitting to pray, it can be good to sit on a fairly hard chair so that our legs are at right angles. If we kneel, a prayer stool can be helpful so that, again, we have a posture that is alert and upright, but not one that involves us straining or tensing our muscles too much. Our back should be straight but not rigid, and our shoulders held loosely but not slouching. Before we start praying, it can be good to give our shoulders a bit of as shake - making a circular movement with each shoulder blade to loosen any tension. Our head should be tilted slightly forward, with our chin tucked into our neck a little - again, the aim is a posture that is relaxed (so no tense muscles) but alert (so no slouching).
These practical things, sitting in a way that is open to God and not tense, this posture of a body, will affect gently the posture of our soul – in order that both can reflect the relaxed attentiveness of those anglers at Shadwell Basin.
So, once we have found the right place and posture, and become still, we say an initial prayer to ask God’s blessing on our time of adoration. Then we begin to take deeper, slower breaths, breathing in deeply, and then as we breathe out, saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.