- Vienna McCarthy
Silent Prayer - Lent 2023 - Fr. Angus Ritchie
Updated: Mar 13
As Tom Daggett reminded us on Sunday, silence was at the heart of Jesus’ life of prayer. At the start of his public ministry, he spent forty days and forty nights praying in the desert – and on many other occasions went away to pray to his heavenly Father.
Jesus teaches the disciples that our prayers don’t need to use lots and lots of words. Prayer is about more than asking God for things, or working out what God wants us to do. The goal of prayer is to be united to God – to enjoy his company, his friendship.
Whenever Jesus heals people, he seeks to draw them into relationship – so they don’t just receive the gift of healing, but the far greater gift of friendship with God. Likewise, in John chapter 15, Jesus tells the disciples that doesn’t just want them to be his servants. They are to be his friends.
Silent prayer moves us beyond asking Jesus for things, or working out what he wants us to do. It’s about enjoying his friendship – resting in him, abiding in him, as branches abide in a vine. When we learn to rest in Jesus, we realise that we don’t have to prove anything; we don’t have to do better or be more popular than the next person. We are loved unconditionally.
But silence can seem terrifying. When we are silent, all kinds of anxieties – about ourselves, our lives, our relationship with God – may come bubbling up. Then we may start worrying about the quality of our silent prayer. Are we doing it right? For long enough? We can worry that it is sometimes boring. Surely other people, more holy people, have amazing spiritual experiences when they pray! Why doesn’t it feel like that when we pray?
So let me start with a word of encouragement. The greatest teachers on prayer – people like St Teresa of Avila – found it really difficult to pray. Indeed, Teresa used to get so bored by praying that she would shake the hourglass that was used to time her prayer to make it go faster! Yet she later said the times when she found it hardest to pray bore more fruit than the times when she found it easy. How her prayer times felt at the time wasn’t a reliable guide to whether they were fruitful. Sometimes the surface felt dry and dull, but God was at work deep within her.
When our prayer life feels alive, there is an obvious grace: we are experiencing the joy of the Spirit of the risen Christ. But when our prayer life feels dead, there are some deeper graces going on. For then, our experience of prayer is more like that of Jesus struggling and sweating in Gethsemane, and crying “why have you forsaken me?” on the Cross.
Even in the dryness, our desire for God is itself a sign of his Spirit crying out from the depths of our hearts. So whether having a wonderful time or whether having a difficult time, silent prayer is drawing us closer to Christ.
Jesus teaches us that the biggest danger in our prayer life isn’t dryness but pride. (Think of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector in Luke 18.) It’s when we enjoying our life of prayer, and spending lots of time in silence that we are most likely to become spiritually smug and start looking down on others. That’s the most dangerous spiritual moment of all!
Let me finish this first talk with a few very practical points about prayer,
Firstly, the most important thing is start now. You don’t get fitter by just reading books on exercise, and you don’t grow in silent prayer by just listening to talks like this reading books. You need to get on with it
Secondly, start little and often. It’s better to start doing five minutes of exercise and slowly build up to more than to start by doing an hour a day and get disheartened after a week. The same is true of silent prayer.
Thirdly, don’t watch the clock. Set a timer for the amount of time you will pray, or use some prayer beads, so that you aren’t worrying as you pray about how near you are to the end of your prayer time.
Fourthly, find somewhere you can get some peace and quiet. I remember some nuns in Liverpool saying there were parents who found it easiest to pray in the bathroom, because it was the only place they wouldn’t be disturbed! Work out where and when is best for you.
So what do we actually do in silent prayer? Over the centuries, the method that seems to have worked best for most Christians to use a very simple prayer over and over again. The most common is based on the prayer of the tax-collector in Luke 18. It is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
The point of using the same words, over and over again, is not that the words are magic. As one of the early Christian saints said, our thoughts are like a swarm of bees and these words give them something to settle on. Once our thoughts begin to settle a bit, we might stop thinking about Jesus and start enjoying his Presence.
So we can start our time of prayer by asking God to bless it. Then we can sit still, slow down our breathing a little. First, we breathe in deeply, and then as we breathe out, we say (in our hearts, or out loud) “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.
As we keep on doing this, we will get distracted. That will frustrate us. We’ll feel that we’re not very good at this, and that will be true! But when we are aware that we’ve been distracted, that our mind has wandered off, we should try not to get wound up. Getting annoyed with ourselves just creates another distraction! Instead, we just get back to doing the thing we were trying to do: breathing in deeply, and then as we breathe out, saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.