A Brief Introduction
Prayer is the lifeblood of faith. Through prayer, God calls us into a deeper relationship with God's Self. The climax of Christian worship is silent prayer: to sit in stillness in the silence of God. There is so much noise and activity within the lives of most of us and we need to learn stillness. Stillness needs to be practised. We can, of course, use ‘arrow’ prayers. These are prayers which are ‘sent up’ in a moment of need and we can alone or in company with others pray to God with all that is on our heart. But, to borrow the phrase of Dom David Foster, on our spiritual journey we should be trying to move from ‘prayers to prayer,’ from words to silence. St Augustine said, ‘We may pray most when we say least.’
Before one even begins to practise silent prayer, it is important to find a space in which there are few distractions, such as other people, computers or telephones. Retreats are a good means of finding such space. They can help us make more significant progress than we might otherwise be able to do in our regular setting. Jesus often sought the solitude and isolation of the hilltop. At their best, church sanctuaries can serve this purpose. It will take time to achieve a sense of deep and penetrating stillness.
Once we begin down the road of stillness, our minds can very quickly become filled with distracting or disturbing thoughts. Our ‘demons’ can scare us: it is not easy or comfortable to face our failings, shortcomings, mistakes of the past or unpleasant or shameful aspects of our personality. If we are to reach that deeper stillness, where I believe God wishes us to be, then we should persevere. In prayer, God is praying through us. We will get through the ‘demons.’ In fact, it is only once we have faced, or at the very least, acknowledged, our ‘demons’ that we will be able to go deeper into the Beyond.
The Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote of the soul, the sinner and prayer. He said:
Man (sic) is the being who bears in his heart a mystery greater than himself. He is like a tabernacle erected round a sacred mystery..... It is true that, in the sinner, this sanctuary has become neglected and forgotten, overgrown and turned into a sepulchre or a rubbish-heap. It needs much effort, the effort in fact of contemplative prayer, to clear it out and make it suitable for its heavenly guest. But the place itself does not have to be built. It is there already, in the inmost part of man, and always has been.
Stillness needs to be practised. In the darkness of silent prayer, once we have acknowledged the many aspects of our life and story, we are now ready to listen for the silence of God. David Foster writes about the five fingers of prayer. The five fingers are asking things of God for ourselves, for others, thanking Him, saying sorry to Him and praising Him. Foster writes:
The weakest fingers were for asking for people or things (me, on the last finger, being shorter than my neighbour on the fourth.) Thanksgiving was on the middle and longest finger; it was the kind of prayer there should be most of. The index finger was for pointing, not to blame others but to acknowledge my own fault. This was the prayer of confession and contrition. The thumb, which can stand alone from the other fingers, was for God himself, the prayer of adoration and praise.
There was a Chinese proverb that we are all born with our hands closed: the whole art of life consists in learning to open them. In the same way, the five fingers of prayer help us open the palms of our hands to give ourselves as an offering to God and to receive the gifts he wants to give. Once we are through our ‘prayers’, our words to God, and once we have acknowledged our demons, the pain and any discomfort which is a part of us, we move gently towards silent prayer, the climax of Christian worship.
It can be a tremendous help to use Scripture as we deepen prayer. If we are ‘talking’ when we pray, then we are not listening. Once we have said what we need to say, we can move towards stillness and use sentences of Scripture to re-orientate our praying from speaking to listening. The Bible is the Word of God; it is a treasure which we hold in our hands. We should approach our reading of Scripture each time with the expectation of hearing God’s voice speaking to us, Spirit to spirit. The psalms are ideal for helping us to hear God speak to us. In meditation, we are to ‘suck every letter,’ as the poet George Herbert says. Never read too many lines and let each word or phrase suggest itself to you. From God’s voice in and through Scripture, we move to that deeper intensity and intimacy of silence, to our stillness settled in the silence of the Holy One.
The Scottish minister and academic, the late H R McIntosh, said:
To collect one’s spirit and pray with energy, with intensity, with persistence, may without exaggeration be called the most absorbing,and in a very real sense the most exhausting action of which the human mind is capable.
Once tasted, there is no substitute for silent prayer. A real sense of union with the Divine yields spiritual energy. It is never irrational, but it is intoxicating.