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of the Nazarene

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A brief guide to silent prayer

The intention of silent prayer is to meet God, to become aware of the presence of God that is always with us. It is silent in the sense that no sound is made, but it is silent in the deeper sense of attempting to refuse all mental images. Silent prayer is imageless prayer. Silent prayer refuses images of God because any image of God inevitably falls short of the reality of God and so is in some sense an idol. Silent prayer is anti-idolatrous prayer. It is a form of prayer that balances the more positive, or content-filled prayers, usually made in church or alone. Neither verbal prayer not silent prayer are intended to be used alone.

How can we pray without mental images? Paradoxically, through the use of words. The mind is always at work and so to occupy it a phrase is repeated within the mind. Any number of phrases could be used, from the Psalmist’s ‘O God make speed to save us, O Lord make haste to help us’; to the tradition developed in Eastern Christianity known as the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, [a sinner]’; to a single word, such as ‘maranatha’. Each person should use a word or phrase that suits them and then stick to it. What is important is not to think about the words; silent prayer is not an exercise in meditation. Instead use the words as a kind of frame for the attention, a way of keeping the mind occupied whilst the mind and whole being becomes still. It is also important therefore to try not to move too much during silent prayer. Physical stillness and inner silence are mutually supportive.

This practice is difficult. The mind is easily distracted even whilst reciting the prayer phrase. This is to be expected. If, whilst praying, you realise you have become distracted and started to think about something, do not become angry or frustrated, simply return to prayer and attempting to become still. Becoming frustrated will simply distract you further from the prayer and from awareness of God. Expect progress to be slow. Expect to be able to concentrate and achieve inner stillness only for small periods at the beginning. Do not expect anything from God: that is another form of producing mental images, it is dictating in advance what God may or may not do. Do not expect sensations, emotions or visions (in fact, Christians who practice silent prayer a great deal are suspicious of visions during prayer and always discuss them with their spiritual director or minister because they are not necessarily from God). Do not, therefore, attempt measure ‘progress’ in prayer in terms of having experiences. Simply practice the prayer and allow God to transform you slowly and gently.

For further explanation see Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land; Anthony Bloom, Living prayer; Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer.


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