Prayer is largely about slowing down into a posture of unhurriedness, removing our soul from the never-ceasing stimulation of our world. Turning off the radio on your commute can be a type of prayer, even if it doesn’t begin with a “Dear Lord” or end with an “Amen.” Indeed, it may just be an inhabiting of silence in which your soul, even while speechless—or sometimes especially while speechless—opens to God’s Spirit.
Indeed, while we think of prayer as speaking words (and even while I will focus on what we say during prayer below) we should keep in mind that prayer is less about the words we use and more about coming to “the place beyond words.” Contemplative prayer is about learning to pray without words. Some of the richest and most transforming prayer happens in the place where we don’t know what to pray and finally stop trying. In this place of silence—where we sit before God, trusting that He sees and knows us, down to the number of hairs on our heads—we can practice trust of God in a way that trying to put words on everything may actually keep us from. In acknowledging our limitations and our inability to understand or explain everything in the world, including what is happening in our deepest selves, we finally become open to God in a new way. We begin communing with Him at a level that is beyond our understanding. When you engage contemplative prayer, you learn to place your attention not on your negative or scattered thoughts, but on The Jesus Paradigm and on God Himself. You are practicing letting your thoughts go so you can receive the truth of God’s transforming love. In prayer, we finally, in some sense, allow God to hold us, without being able to quantify the experience. Again, this is what we see fully in Jesus and how he is before God his Father.
This is challenging for me, because I love putting words and labels on things. However, this ability to name things, as good as it is, can also become a crutch for me, with its underlying belief that if I can label everything correctly or attach the right words to a prayer, I can somehow crack a hidden code. I have learned that there’s something more important than my understanding life or even knowing exactly what to pray for. Indeed, my deepest communion with God seems to come in the place where I simply say “Father,” and then sit quietly, breathing, noticing my body, becoming aware of God’s Spirit all around me, resting and trusting that He’s with me. Knowing that He’s with me. This takes me much further “into God” than my ability to pray with words.
Paul alludes to at least one of these places beyond words when he says, “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” I often find that I don’t know what God wants me to pray. However, if I will just sit before Him in silence, it’s far more effective than my just filling up the space; ultimately, words that feel right to pray seem to come from somewhere beyond me, even if they are few. For this reason, in Christian tradition, and especially in the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a tradition of praying “with the head in the heart.” When we pray this way, we submit our need to put words to everything and instead, in quiet, allow ourselves to, first, simply feel our longing for God, sitting in His presence. In a world so saturated with endless words, noise, and images, this is an ability learned through practice and training. But our own spirit and certainly the Spirit of God have space to pray as we practice sitting in the place beyond words.
I have a friend who has had a hard time praying because every time she tries to sit still, her mind races, and she has judged herself “bad at prayer.” It will help all of us to remember, simply, that minds race. That’s what they do! The more we judge ourselves for getting distracted, the less time we will want to spend in prayer. Though over time we cantrain our minds to sit contentedly in silence, we can’t get there by judging our minds for getting distracted. We need, rather, to simply note when our mind is wandering and then focus on bringing ourselves back to prayer. An exercise which helped my friend was writing down all the places her mind raced to when she prayed and, after writing them, refocusing on quiet breathing. Then, at the end of the time of quiet, she read over all the concerns or distractions she’d written down and asked, “God, how are you speaking to me through these things that preoccupy my mind?” She realized that rather than seeing distractions as bad and her mind racing as something that would keep her from prayer, she could actually relate to her distractions as yet another place that God wanted to speak to her. She realized she has been judging herself but that God has not been judging her. This helped her learn to dwell in the place beyond words.
Resetting our minds, once they have wandered, actually expands our capacity for self-control and greater focus. “Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” There’s good brain-science that demonstrates that the more we train ourselves to pray, the more we actually expand the space between stimulus and response in all of life. Someone can cut us off in traffic (stimulus), and rather than cussing or yelling (response), we have more time and space to mindfully respond, without going to our automatic response.
I have another friend who centers his body and his mind for prayer by lighting candles before he prays. Then he focuses on the light of the flames, remembering that God is light and that “our God is a consuming fire.” This helps him get out of his head and into a sense of awe and wonder before he prays. He focuses on the light of the candles as a way of focusing his body and mind toward prayer. Similarly, some people use a sacred word or phrase, like “You are good” or “You are my Father” to center themselves in prayer or to bring them back to prayer after their minds have gotten distracted.
Whatever works will work. Let us simply remember that prayer is about coming into mystery. As Augustine said, “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.” We are guided into prayer by a path which Jesus himself gave us, sending our heads out in front of our hearts. But prayer will also be about entering a mystery, a place where we don’t feel in control, and certainly not a place where we have words for everything. Just as we allow Scripture to “read us,” as Nouwen said, so we should create space for the Spirit to pray through us. Let us keep that in mind as we approach a prayer practice like the one that follows (see Prayer VI). It can guide us to the water, but the Spirit of Jesus teaches us to swim.
For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'
See, for example, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology. Igumen Chariton, ed. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, NY. 1997. See the Introduction.
This quote is often attributed to psychologist and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl, though attribution is difficult to nail down. Stephen Covey is responsible for its wide dissemination and for linking it to Frankl. For more on Frankl’s work, see Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frank. Beacon Press. Boston, MA. 2006.
The amygdala is the part of our brain that goes into instant response, fight or flight, in the presence of a threatening stimulus. The neocortex, the more thoughtful part of the brain, can make deeper sense of meaning, thoughtfully (rather than impulsively) responding to stimulus. Through contemplative prayer, our ability to access the neocortex (and bypass automatic amygdala response) is strengthened.
Qtd in Confessions: The Father of the Church, Vol. 21by Saint Augustine. Vernon J. Bourke, trans. The Catholic University Press of America, Washington, DC. 1953. “Confessions: Book 1,” Footnote 34.