Pathways of Prayer - part 2
One of the richest forms of prayer occurs when the heart is absolutely
quiet. As the psalmist says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).
Several years ago, Dominican Sister Sylvia Rosell from the Still Point House of Prayer
in Albany, New York, explained it to me this way: “If you still your mind, you can
hear your own heart. And at the core of your heart is the indwelling of God. It’s
just like when you love someone and you sit there and look at each other. You just stare
silently and there is a terrible presence between you. It’s an awesome thing. God
is present and you are present—to each other. It’s a matter of just being there.
For example, one might start out with words—with the reading of
a passage from scripture, for example—but gradually our words and thoughts simplify.
The natural drift of prayer is often from words to silence, according to Father
William Johnston, S.J., (who was introduced in Part I of this series). At times, many of
us feel led, as if by a hidden inner compass, into this kind of silent union with God.
In many cases, prayers that rely on words may be the best form of prayer
for us. In fact, Father Johnston cautions against striving too hard to get rid of words
and thoughts. Yet, he believes we should be conscious of those times when the Spirit is
moving us to silence. “It’s like there are two layers of the psyche,” he
explains. “In one layer there are lots of words and thoughts going on, but on a deeper
level, you are united quietly to God.” When you feel drawn to silent union, go there
and rest in God as long as the Spirit invites.
This is really another aspect of the prayer of inner quiet, but the focus
is on listening to the God who reveals himself in our inmost being. In this prayer you
listen at the very core of your being to the deepest voice of all the voice of God and
of the Spirit. Thomas Merton describes this kind of prayer as “finding one’s
deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God, who
is the source of our being and our life.”
You may find it helpful to try this simple prayer exercise: Just sit
down and, keeping your back straight but free, begin quieting your mind and your body by
taking a few relaxing breaths. Center your awareness on the silent and infinite presence
of God within your heart. Let the Spirit lead you beyond the noisy world of space and time
into the silent realm within you where God dwells as the source of your being. As you continue
your breathing, center on that hushed point within you where the human touches the divine,
where the branch intersects with the vine, where you and God are one and dwell in each
other. Let yourself sink into the silent immensity of God. Simply let your prayer become
a silent being there with God. With barely any need for thoughts and words, exchange
quiet love with God for however long you feel so inspired.
Prayers of intercession or of asking God for personal favors have been
downplayed in recent years, because, in some quarters, such prayers may seem self-centered
and immature. This could be especially true in the case where one might pray to win a football
game or to pass a test for which one did not study. If our prayer is too self-centered
or mundane, certainly we may want to broaden our horizons or turn more to prayers of praise
and of loving union with God.
On the other hand, to see intercessory prayer as immature or below our
dignity is to fail to recognize our true status as finite creatures. Even in human love,
those who are too proud or pure to receive love from another person and only see
themselves as givers do not make the best lovers. As Thomas Merton writes in his
book, No Man Is an Island, “The man whose prayer is so pure that he never
asks God for anything does not know who God is, and does not know himself, for he does
not know his own need for God.” Like Christ himself, we should not hesitate to recognize
our dependence on God and pray for our daily needs and, of course, those of our neighbor.
Those of us suffering pain, heartbreak or loss can turn even these experiences
into prayer, according to Father Johnston. We strive to remain with God and with Jesus,
our healer, instead of trying to escape the pain or void, or to seek consolation right
away from others.
Father Johnston suggests that “you don’t run away. You stay
with it. You stay in the void because that can open you up to God and real joy. If you
remain with God and with the pain, a new understanding can come.” Jesus is our model
for the prayer of suffering. While racked with pain in the garden and on the way to his
passion, Jesus lovingly opened himself the more to trust and vital contact with God, who
St. Francis of Assisi saw all creatures as stamped with God’s image
and as stepping- stones to the creator. For Francis, every creature—sun, moon, tree
or cloud—was a window or a pathway to God. Jesus, of course, the summit of creation,
is the perfect mirror of God—the ideal go-between, passageway or sudden door to the
Father. Thanks to the Incarnation, the whole world is charged with the grandeur of God,
as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggests in his poem of that name. All creatures
and all earthly experiences can be pathways and windows to God.