The monk’s voice over loud speaker filled the lower basilica of St. Francis Assisi in Italy. “Shhhhhhhhhhh…” quieted the masses visiting the spiritual home of one of the world’s most beloved saints. Silencio. This memory has stayed with me for years. Of the many famous cathedrals and basilicas I’ve visited, this was the first one that asked for silence and for reverence.
It also reminds me that silence, reverence, and intention are prayer.
I can fill the quiet of my mind with familiar prayers and my own monologue to God, but how often do I stop talking and just listen in true silence, with a clear mind? Not often enough. Perhaps it’s more comfortable for me to do the talking rather than the listening in my prayer life. Perhaps it’s because I’m in control of it. But in silent, contemplative prayer, the scaffold of familiar prayers and inner monologue is removed and I’m no longer in control of the conversation. At this point, I’m required to listen.
An anonymous English author in the 14th century wrote a text entitled The Cloud of Unknowing about this very kind of contemplative prayer. It requires absolute stillness, silence of the mind, a set intention and total presence, and the result is well worth the patience. Once the analytical mind is out of the way, a true dialogue with the Divine can begin and a deeper relationship can grow.
Patience is not always my virtue and my analytical mind still controls the volume of a loudspeaker in my head. In today’s world, it’s challenging for me to designate time for what seems like a “zero mind and body activity”, but this is exactly what I need to do and why I need to make it a priority. I have to turn off the urge to always go, go, go and to fill up the silence with noise.
When I have finally settled down, muted the phone, started the meditation timer, and cleared my mind, I have…fallen asleep, made out shopping lists, played the song I can’t get out of my head on a continual loop, and thought about what I’m doing once this silent stillness thing is over. Sometimes contemplative prayer feels like a mind game that I’m clearly losing! Even the anonymous author admits that beginners might struggle with starting a contemplative prayer practice, but the intention is there. Yes, my intention is there. My intention is there to sit in silence and listen. My intention is there to reach out and deepen my relationship with God.
It hasn’t always been a battle over the mind. I have caught some glimmers of light in a place that is neither here nor there, not in sleep nor full consciousness. It is a place that has a cloud-like quality. I feel more peaceful after after contemplative prayer. And I believe I can receive divine wisdom more clearly throughout the day without interference from my always-in-control analytical mind. Meditation practice and contemplative prayer have withstood the test of time even with squirmy beginning practitioners exactly like me. There must be something to this, something worth the effort!
To every one of my excuses – it’s hard to find time, I can’t do this, I want my prayer cards back! – the anonymous author encourages me to keep trying because it IS well worth the work.
“So stop hesitating. Do this work until you feel the delight of it. In the trying is the desire.”
Amen. Be silent. Be still.
This beautiful prayer to Our Lady of Knock below also reminds me to step away from the forms of prayer that I know and become more comfortable with silence and unknowing.
New Prayer to Our Lady of Knock
Most Blessed Lady of Knock, it is easy for me to recite the simplest prayers I learned in my childhood or even to repeat the more complex formulas I’ve absorbed as an adult. But your example tells me that silence can also be a prayer, that silent attention to God is worship.
So dearest Lady of Silence, remind me again of the importance of silence. And help me, I pray, to silence the noise within my soul, that I may someday be fully attentive to the Divine and may finally be able to worship God with all my soul. Amen