A Path Towards Stillness

The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.  Rom. 8:6b

We learn much about the peace of God through the practice of silent prayer.  We also learn about ourselves and how difficult it is to remain in this peace.  Significant transformation is needed before we truly come to rest in God.  What is your experience of this type of conversion—from a restless heart to one that has become stilled in God’s presence?   Here is how I see it unfold in my own prayer life.

Usually the first ten to twenty minutes of my daily prayer are spent working through the more immediate and pressing issues of my life.  My heart, it seems, still needs to process the residue from recent events.  Since my mind is too active to pray in stillness, I pray instead according to whatever presents itself, including the concerns and petitions I carry for others.  I allow my heart to feel whatever it feels as I consider, in the presence of God, whatever needs to be considered.  Like a massage therapist working out the tension in my muscles, God gently loosens the knots in my heart until these initial issues have all been acknowledged. Eventually, this first agenda exhausts itself and my inner life becomes more settled. I can now begin to negotiate stillness.

Curiously, it is at this point—once the initial flurry of thinking has stopped—that I find myself most challenged.  I am no longer sure where to put my focus.  What am I supposed to do now that I have run out of things to talk about with God?  It feels like the prayer must be over.  In order to proceed I have to now face the challenge of an emptiness that I feel quite anxious to leave.  Where prayer began with the mind, it now continues as an act of the will in which I choose to remain in the disposition of formless prayer as I wait and watch for God.

Silly thoughts now appear out of nowhere.  Anything and everything seems to offer itself as fodder to fill the uncomfortable vacuum left by silence.  Each new thought, though knowingly unimportant, vies for undue attention.  It feels like I am in a room full of children who know they’re being ignored, and I have to make a conscious effort to remain detached from my thinking.  To try to stifle these thoughts would only serve to warrant the attention they seek.  Instead I have to let them be, not allowing them to monopolize my attention.

The focus of my prayer now shifts to the stillness and silence I am being invited to.  At this stage I am more aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit between and below the activity of my thought life.  I have more of a sense that I am participating with God—that I am being led and taught how to pray by the Lord Himself.  My inner life slows down.  At times, it seems to come to a standstill where I get to gaze, if only for a few seconds, at the shimmering nature of my existence in God.  Like Julian of Norwich, who understood God’s creativity in the universe by meditating on a hazelnut, I understand, in the microcosm of my own inner workings, something of God’s intimate ways with all creation.

From this disposition, I am better able to witness the subtle ways of the Holy Spirit.  My attention now turns to how I participate, or not, with this stillness.  Every movement of my own initiative I treat as suspect.  No longer am I seeking myself but I am now seeking God, which I must do at the expense of myself.  As I catch myself wrapped again in the blanket of an attractive thought, I gently break its grip.  I let it dissolve, unrequited by my validation.  Though I grieve the loss of whatever delight these thoughts promise me I must choose, over and over again, the uncertainty of what awaits me in silence over the self-created life I have in hand.  And in the process of such conversion, I am led to a deepening relationship with the stillness of prayer from which I come to better “know that He is God”   (Psalm 46:10).

The desert fathers taught their disciples to  “pray with the mind descended into the heart.”  Perhaps this is also what the apostle Paul means when he speaks of “the mind controlled by the Spirit.”  As our self-generated life becomes more submissive to the life of the Spirit within us, we will experience something of the peace and life that can only come from yielding to God’s ways.

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.

Heb. 4:9-10