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 talkingabout
what feels like emptiness and sounds like silence in prayer.
Where does it come from? What does it mean? Where can it lead
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
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 mein
fact, had always been with meoffering 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
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
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
thereno 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 importantspending 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
availableif 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 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.