The first prayer I remember praying as a child was this:
Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.
God bless mommy and daddy and puppy….
And on occasions, before going to sleep at night, I would recite it.
Looking back, I now wonder whose idea it was to ask a child to contemplate the possibility of dying in the middle of the night. It scared the bejeebies out of me. I remember insisting that my bedroom door remain open just in case I needed to bolt to my parent’s room if the boogey man ever showed up.
Scary stuff aside, my first lesson on prayer was essentially that prayer was reciting words back to God.
When I became a teenager, I attended a Baptist church where I noticed that they didn’t much like recitation but insisted on spontaneous prayer. Still, I noticed that the spontaneity had repetition to it. Nonetheless, it seemed more natural to me. And at least I didn’t have to think about death each time I prayed, so one day I decided to give it a try. I remember sitting in my room by myself and looking up at the ceiling.
“God?” I said.
Nothing answered back, which didn’t surprise me. I probably would have peed in my pants had an audible voice spoken. Still, I felt a little weird.
“This is Kelly,” I continued, as if he didn’t know. I remember doubting my sanity a little. Only crazy people talk to the ceiling. Still, I really wanted to learn how to pray, so I plowed through, forcing myself to talk to God. When I finished, I was probably more confused than anything else. Did I do it right?
The problem was, in the youth group I attended, people spoke about prayer in such a way that it seemed like they were having a conversation with God. “Yesterday in my quiet time,” they’d share, “God said….” And they would declare a word from the Lord with such confidence.
My experience was very different, however. When I spoke, no one answered.
Undaunted, I kept trying. And as I spoke to others about my misgivings, they revealed that God wasn’t audibly speaking to them either, but that they were getting “impressions” while they prayed and that this was how God spoke.
So I decided to give THAT a try by attempting to interpret my impressions, too. And soon, I was picking up the prayer lingo. “God spoke to me,” I started saying. But in the back of my mind, I wondered if it was so.
Was I really having a conversation with God? Or was I talking to myself and confusing the voice in my head for God?
I won’t go into details but suffice it to say that there were several moments when I obeyed what the voice in my head was telling me to do, and it ended in disaster. It didn’t take long for me to lose confidence in my “impressions” having anything to do with the voice of God.
And so, I settled into a type of worship where I lectured God with a laundry list of items for a while and called it prayer.
It wasn’t until I found Thomas Merton that I began to understand the nature of prayer.
The Truth is formed in silence and work and suffering, with which we become true. But we interfere with God’s work by talking too much about ourselves-even telling Him what we ought to do-advising Him how to make us perfect. and listening for His voice to answer us with approval. We soon grow impatient and turn aside from the silence that disturbs us (the silence in which His work can best be done) and invent the answer and the approval, which will never come. Silence, then. is the adoration of His truth.Intimate Merton, p. 106
In his book Invitation to Love, Thomas Keating writes that, “Silence is God’s first language, everything else is a poor translation” (p. 105). And so if we want to hear from God we have to develop the skill of sitting in silence, solitude, and stillness. It’s harder than you think. But fortunately, there are a many great guides.
For example, Evagrius wrote that prayer, true prayer, is a state of being. It is at once both an awareness of our own naked self, without pretense, and an encounter with mystery (See William Harmless, Desert Christians, pp. 352-54.)
Gregory the Great is another great guide, who wrote that the prayer of silence is simply resting in God.
What I learned from these sages who spent much of their life in prayer was that I confused talking with communication. They are not the same. And to truly commune with God we have to go beyond words to a place of deep intimacy. It’s like a mother rocking her infant to sleep. No words are spoken, but the most intimate communication is taking place.
I could go on and on. And if you are interested in learning more, the book I use in class to teach this is by Cynthia Bourgeault entitled, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.
Also, Father Thomas Keating has written several books on the practice of “centering prayer.” His most famous is Open Mind, Open Heart. Contemplative Outreach contains many of his resources, which includes articles and videos and an especially good pamphlet entitled The Method of Centering Prayer.
Another great place for resources is the Gravity Center, led by my friends Phileena and Chris Heuertz. I highly recommend their retreats.
Finally, there is an app I like to use called Insight Timer. Contemplative Outreach has another one called Centering Prayer. What’s helpful about these apps is that they let you know in a very gentle tone when time is up. I also like to setup a tone at the ten minute mark to let me know when I’m halfway through.
Start small, with five minutes. And then work your way up to twenty minutes. YOU WILL GET FRUSTRATED. But keep at it. Eventually, it will begin to make more and more sense to you, and before long you will begin to understand what the psalmist meant when he declared,
“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10
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