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Praying With the Silence of God

by Christopher M. Bellitto

Many people talk about the high points of prayer: moments of great comfort or insight where they hear God's answer to their important question loudly and clearly.

I once thought this was the typical prayer experience. But mostly all I heard was silence, so I decided I wasn't any good at praying and should just give up. I felt that way until I got up the courage to talk with other people who pray and discovered their experience was much the same. They hadn't frequently felt "big moments" or great inspirations in prayer. In fact, what they got most of the time was silence.

They, too, figured God was too busy with the billions of other people surely praying at the same time. Because they believed all those other people praying enjoyed a great, emotional high from God almost every day, they were also reluctant to bring up the subject.

Since many people seem to have experienced emptiness or silence in prayer, let's talk about not talking—about what feels like emptiness and sounds like silence in prayer. Where does it come from? What does it mean? Where can it lead you?

The Silent Treatment

Silence can be the worst thing to deal with. I remember hating the "silent treatment" my girlfriend used to pull on me in high school. How was I supposed to figure out what I did to deserve that if she wouldn't tell me? Just as this person I knew well ignored me, it sometimes seemed that God wasn't paying any attention either.

This may be because my prayer when I was a teenager was cluttered with stuff. I can remember asking God very specific questions: Where should I go to college? What should I do for a career? Who should I ask for a date? Before plays, I would ask for help so I would remember my lines, sing on cue and move the right piece of the set at the proper time. "God, please, let me break 1000 on the SAT" was a frequent prayer during my junior year.

Every time I prayed like this, I heard nothing. Even when I went on a retreat one Easter during high school, the silence seemed deafening.

When this continued to happen to me at the darkest time of my life, I finally gave up on words in prayer because I felt God was asking me to make a major decision but wasn't giving me any help. I kept asking for signs, then spent hours wondering if a word from someone, a song on the radio at a particular moment, or a letter from a special person was "the sign." I got so angry with God that I went for a long walk alone and found myself shouting to the air.

"If you want me to do this, you've got to tell me!" I yelled up at a gray afternoon sky. "You can't ask me to take this step and leave me alone. It's your fault I'm being pulled in two directions, not mine. And until you give an answer, I'm not talking with you any more!"

No bolt of lightning struck me down and I felt much better. (After all, God is my friend and sometimes you even have to yell at your friends.) I continued to feel better for weeks.

When I did sit down to pray, I had no words, no list of questions, no desire to analyze anything. All I did was sit and listen, letting my mind wander until I felt it was time to get up. Sometimes that took five minutes; one day it took more than four hours.

But all through that period, for the first time in my life, I understood that God was always with me—in fact, had always been with me—offering not words or direct answers but a peaceful silence that repairs my spirit.

Silence Isn't Empty

Struggling with silence in prayer seems to be a natural part of praying, just as struggling to figure out where to go to college or whether to go out on a date with someone is a natural part of life. But both types of struggles can be incredibly challenging and frightening. I found this to be true all the more in high school when I had all these big questions: Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life?

Some of the greatest people of prayer describe long periods of praying that were so empty they called them desert experiences or dark nights of the soul. In fact, even saints who reached deep communion with God seem to have also fought with the blankest emptiness.

A great hero of the Church, Cardinal John Henry Newman, was a British convert to Catholicism who found himself struggling to understand what God wanted him to do. Cardinal Newman felt that God was deliberately being silent, so he decided that he would simply wait on God and listen, figuring that God would tell him according to God's plan, not his.

"God has created me to do him some definite service," Newman wrote as he waited. "He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission."

Like Newman, we must make the time to be quiet, to listen and to be willing to wait for God's message. "Wait for the Lord with courage," Psalm 27:14 encourages us. "Be stouthearted [strong and courageous], and wait for the Lord." God operates according to a divine plan, not a human one.

Just when you need the loudest, clearest answers, the silence can seem most overwhelming and frustrating. You might feel as if you are on empty and there's no relief in sight. You might even feel that you're a prayer failure because you're so easily distracted.

Keep on. By experiencing the quiet of God, you will appreciate God's sounds all the more. You will learn how to listen to God all the more. Holy people who have prayed long and often tell us to stick to prayer no matter what happens. Why? Because you and God are unbeatable together and the frustrations of silence will be outweighed by the blessings. Believe this.

Letting Your Heart Take the Lead

You don't need to talk to pray, but you should still set aside a particular time and place in which you pray. We should fit the rest of our lives around prayer, not squeeze it into our schedules, because God is so central to our lives.

Because God is our best friend, we should make time to maintain this relationship with prayer just as we make time for our parents, brothers and sisters or classmates. Even though you don't always spend every minute of the day with these people, that doesn't mean they're not a big part of your life. Just as you should appreciate your friends, you shouldn't take God for granted, even though God's always there for you.

Ironically, here's where prayer becomes very easy: You don't even have to begin. When you decide to make time for silent prayer, you'll find that God was already right there—no appointment necessary.

Even on those days when I'm so busy all I have is a few seconds to close my eyes and say, "Help me get through this," I know God is there for me because God is never too busy for each of us individually. I know that when I finally do sit down to pray, God's not going to bark, "Oh! Now you're ready! I guess I'm supposed to drop everyone else for you?" I find this very comforting, especially when I think I don't have time to pray or just don't feel like it.

How does God reach out to us? The movies make it appear that every phone call from God is full of special effects, blinding lights and spectacular confusion. True, God seems to have had a taste for the dramatic in the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. God did speak to Moses in a burning bush.

But more often, God seems to prefer the silence. For instance, when Elijah was waiting for God, he expected something big, just like most of us. But God, the Bible tells us, was not in a heavy wind that crushed mountains or in an earthquake or a raging fire. Rather, God spoke to Elijah in a tiny whisper (1 Kings 19:11-13). If God spoke to Elijah like this, why not to us? In order for God to be heard, however, we must decide to be quiet in order to hear that whisper.

There are many ways to make the time to listen. While everyone does this differently, let me offer a few ideas. Some people like to find a completely quiet corner in which to sit. Others prefer to play soft music or imagine themselves floating on a cloud or a calm river.

Silence, simply listening, is especially helpful when you feel you can't find the right words to pray or are down because you don't think you can get through a hard test, a game or a difficult time with a friend or a family member. That's O.K. because it's your heart that prays regardless of what's on your lips.

It's not always easy to let your heart pray, especially when you lead a life crammed full with school, sports, club meetings, part-time jobs and family obligations.

We can be so busy taking care of school, work and relationships that it seems we don't even have time to think. Plus, the world seems to value us for what we do in the most active, outward, public ways, not for who we are in the quiet, inward, private times.

But Jesus himself reminded us that we have to take time out to do nothing but be with God (Luke 10:38-42). When Jesus was visiting his friends, one of them, Martha, bustled around offering her guests things to eat and drink while her sister Mary just sat at Jesus' feet. Martha was annoyed that her sister wasn't sharing the chores and complained that Mary was just sitting there. Jesus reminded Martha that Mary was doing something very important—spending time quietly with him.

Jesus himself prayed a lot, a fact we often overlook because his words and actions were so important for us. Before every major event of his life, Jesus prayed alone and quietly. As with all things, then, we should let Jesus be our model.

Listen to the Silence

If listening to silence sounds like a contradiction, that's because it is. What I'm suggesting is just taking time to do nothing, think nothing, feel nothing on your own. Just sit there and relax and let God take over. Surrender.

Pope John Paul II recently wrote that the fullest kind of prayer occurs not when we talk, but when we let God be present to us. Once you've established that fact, nothing can defeat you. And whenever school or work or your family life gets too tense, just give it up to God. Sit yourself down and shut yourself up.

God knows what we need. We don't have to send God a shopping list of other people's troubles or our own. All we have to do is let their faces glide before our eyes and lift them up to God. The pope says that's how he prays: He just places his concerns in front of God's eyes. We don't have to lay down the two sides of an argument or decision. Just send them up to God. And if an answer doesn't come that second, it's probably because it's not time yet. And if God doesn't think it's time yet, who are we to argue?

Remember that different types of prayer fit into our lives at different times. What works for somebody else may not work for you and that's fine. If you are an extremely active person, then you may feel most comfortable praying in a physical way (taking a walk by yourself or listening while you exercise or drive). Quiet people tend to pray in a more reserved way. What works for you today may not have worked six months ago and that's fine, too.

In just the past three years, I've spent months praying in the morning with the readings from that day's Mass only to follow that period with months praying at night sitting on my couch in darkness. Sometimes I pray for a long time or sometimes I pray briefly, confident that God will call me forward to another, maybe new type of prayer that will be right for me at the next stage of my life.

Regardless of how or where or when you pray, God's silence is always there, always comforting and always available—if only for one minute each day. But that one minute can fill us with God and help us get through the craziness of a busy day. What better way to do that than in silence with God, our first and best friend?

 

The Catechism on Prayer

Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to ...respond to what the Lord is asking. #2705

One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer ....The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith. #2710

We let our masks fall and turn our hearts back to the Lord who loves us, so as to hand ourselves over to him .... #2711

 

Christopher M. Bellitto is a teaching fellow and doctoral candidate in history at Fordham University. He writes frequently for Catholic publications.

The St. John Parish Youth Discovery Group in Harrison, Ohio, critiqued this issue: Nicole Branigan, 15; Mike Dahmann, 17; Lynn Dole, 15; Ed Erdman, 16; Holly Geiger, 15; Sheila Kincaid, 15; Todd Kincaid, 16; Jason R. Noel, 17; Louis Schultz, 15; Meg Winterhalter, 15, and Al (Alby) Witt, 16.

Q.

You prayed over everyday decisions. Isn't prayer more for special needs and for healing?

A.

Your needs, however ordinary, are special because you are God's sons and daughters. If you already have a daily relationship with God, then asking for help with a need that is out of the ordinary won't make it seem like you just pray when there's trouble.

Q.

Are you saying not to use words when we pray?

A.

I'm saying it doesn't matter. I also want you to know that you have many choices. The important thing is to put your heart into prayer, not necessarily your words. You can talk for a while and then listen, if that's what you like. If you can't find the words or don't feel like talking, just let your mind wander over a problem or question as if you're watching a movie with you as the main character. God will see what you mean.

Q.

Does it make a difference whether I pray to God or Jesus? Can I pray to anyone else?

A.

It doesn't matter to God (or Jesus). It may make a difference to you. Depending on who you are and even how old you are, you may feel more comfortable praying to God as a parent. You may be able to pray to Jesus more as your friend (one reason he made his earthly appearance). Many see the Holy Spirit as one who inspires. The Church has a long tradition, in which you can follow, of asking the saints and Mary to "put in a good word" with God.

 

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