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In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks to his disciples about prayer: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you.” (Matthew 6:6)
We know from the Gospels that Jesus took time to pray even when he was busy, even when the crowds were pressing in on him. His Jewish upbringing gave him a profound respect for formal prayer, such as the Psalms, as well as the communal prayer of the people gathered in the Temple. However, in this passage, Jesus is calling his disciples’ attention to something different—a quiet, contemplative prayer, an opening of the heart in stillness and silence to the presence of God. This kind of prayer nurtures an intimate relationship with God. This kind of prayer is resting one’s head against God’s heart and listening for the pulse of life.
The world we live in is busy and noisy; stillness and silence are difficult to find. Quietness is rare, and inner tranquility even more elusive. Clergy and religious can be particularly challenged in making time for private, contemplative prayer because of the demands of their work, along with the temptation to consider their work—leading other people in prayer, preparing to preach, leading others to that “inner room”—to be sufficiently prayerful for their own needs. They might maintain a disciplined rhythm of formal prayer, filled with many words, but neglect their personal relationship with God.
Certainly, words are one way to communicate with God, but only one. In fact, prayer is not primarily about words but a disposition of the heart, an inner movement of lifting the soul to God. Some clergy and religious, whose prayer life does not reflect a dynamic, intimate relationship with God, avoid any reference to feelings when they talk about their prayer; they can articulate what they know about God, while not being in touch with their experience of God.
Spiritual direction sessions can become theological discussions, as the intellectual approach may feel more comfortable and less threatening. Jesus calls his disciples to friendship, however: “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15) Like any friendship or any relationship of love, an intimate relationship with God requires time, attention, stillness, and attentive listening to the small, subtle movements of the heart that are part of God’s “language.”
In prayer . . . so many different interior movements take place that to express them all is impossible, not only because of their quantity but also because of their nature and quality. Since this is spiritual, they are necessarily extremely subtle.1
—St. Francis De Sales, Treatise on the Love of God
Prayer is both God’s work and our work, God’s invitation and our response. At Saint Luke Institute, our clients have the opportunity to nurture their personal, intimate relationship with God, to respond to God’s invitation with mindfulness and attentiveness. This particular kind of presence to God, inviting God’s companionship on their journey of healing, can be a new way of praying.
Contemplative prayer is a movement from the head to the heart. The heart, as we mean it here, is more than just the seat of emotions, and more like one might use the word soul, that innermost point in each person, where God speaks. This movement is a shift in attention from the analytical mind to the point of simple presence, where the thinking mind is brought to silence.
Such stillness and silent attentiveness is a challenge for anyone. It is difficult to find the time, and there are many distractions. There can also be a fear of what will be encountered in the silence. Clergy and religious are also susceptible to searching for their self-worth in what they do, rather than in who they are at the core of their soul, and contemplative prayer diverts their energies from the doing.
Saint Luke Institute clients are encouraged to enter into this silence to nurture their friendship with God. They are assured that even when they feel lost, God has not abandoned them. A sense of separation from God may be a very real, felt experience, but it is not the last word. As spiritual author Martin Laird has written, “God does not know how to be absent.”2 An intimate, loving friendship with God is the source of energy for ministry.
Friendship with God is important for inner peace, which can be a source of healing. Friendship with God is important for discernment, not just decision-making, but the disposition of a heart attentive to God’s voice. When points of impasse are encountered on the spiritual journey, surrendering to this intimate relationship allows God’s healing grace to break through.
1St. Francis DeSales, Treatise on the Love of God, Book 3.
2Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Oxford, 2006), p. 15
3John of the Cross wrote about this in his commentary on The Dark Night. See also the work of Constance Fitzgerald, OCD, such as “Impasse and Dark Night” in Desire, Darkness and Hope: Theology in a Time of Impasse by Laurie Cassidy, ed. and M. Shawn Copeland, ed. (Liturgical Press, 2021).
Kathleen Hope Brown, D.Min., is Saint Luke Institute’s Coordinator of Spiritual Formation in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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