Be Still!

In prayer, it can be a mistake to try too hard. The practice of stillness can help one to hear, and feel, the Holy Spirit, according to a Jesuit.

The simple answer to "Praying - How?" is "God knows". All our prayer is in the name of, that is, in the power of, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. "You cannot say 'Abba, Father,' unless the Spirit prays it within you", writes St Paul, so prayer is about letting god pray in us. But how are we to do this? There are as many ways of praying, as there are human beings: each person prays differently, and each individual's method of praying will vary even from day to day. However, there are some general principles which can help us find our own way of letting God pray in and through us.

"My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts", says the Lord God, so presumably God's way of praying is not our way of praying. That most religious writer, Martin Buber, once wrote: "Nothing so masks the face of God as religion!" Perhaps an extension of his thinking might include: "Nothing so stifles prayer as our prayerful efforts." So the first piece of practical advice is: don't try too hard.

"Be still and know that I am God". Whatever our method of prayer may be, we should be still, relaxed yet attentive, for prayer is about being attentive. Attentive to what? Attentive to what is going on within you, for "God", in St Augustine's words, "is closer to me than I am to myself".

Is that all you have to do: be still? Yes, it is as simple as that, but the simplest things are the most difficult, as we all soon learn when we try to be still. Physical stillness is difficult enough: stillness of mind is much more difficult. The more we try deliberately to be mentally still, the more active the mind becomes, presenting us with a flood of thoughts, imaginings and memories. How then are we to still the mind?"

One way is though focusing on the physical feelings in our body. Our minds are so made that we can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so if we sit and focus all our attention on what, physically, we can feel in our body, we cannot at the same time be thinking about God, our own progress or lack of it in prayer, or any other subject. But the mind will not allow us to concentrate for long on what we are physically feeling: it will begin distracting us with questions, such as "What's the point of doing this?" "Is this a Hindu thing or something?" Is it safe?" "What's for dinner?"

The art of being still is to be able to acknowledge these thoughts without pursuing them, then to return our focus to what we are physically feeling. There are innumerable ways of being still: what they have in common is that the focus of attention is on sensing, not on thinking.

When I first visited Donald Nicholl after he had been told that his illness was terminal, he said to me: "I've been thinking. I think that thinking is a result of the Fall, so now I spend my days in gazing." Seven months later he presented me with 23 closely typed pages of A4 text headed Thoughts and Meditations" He explained the apparent contradiction: "Gazing, if it is visualising, stimulates the need to think, and so one does not so much gaze as listen to the Holy Spirit communicating in a mode beyond speech or words. We then breathe the Holy Spirit and there is no more to be said."

Recently, I drove a golf ball with a slight slice so that it landed in the edge of the reservoir which ran parallel with the fairway. Trying to recover it with a club, I stirred up the mud and lost sight of the ball. Practising stillness at the beginning of prayer allows the mud of the mind to settle, so that we can begin to see, "the Holy Spirit communicating in a mode beyond speech or words."

Where does this communication take place? In the heart. Prayer has been described, Cor ad cor laquitur, heart speaks to heart. "From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth, and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free. The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way we could never put into words" (Romans 8.23-27).

Out of the stillness pray from the heart, its longings, fears, frustrations, restlessness. Underlying all our restlessness is desire. "You created me for Yourself, and my heart is restless until it rests in You"" wrote St Augustine, reviewing his restless life; chasing after the objects of his desire, frustrated because no matter how determinedly he pursued them, he still remained dissatisfied.

Be still, then pray from the heart, simply honestly, with or without words, in whatever way you find helps you. The psalms are prayers from the heart, sometimes broken in sorrow, sometimes filled with delight. They teach us a method. Read a psalm which moves you, then be still so that the Holy Spirit can pray in your spirit, creating your psalms. Pray scripture passages in faith, that is, in the belief that through the medium of these words, or of this incident, god is peaking to you now. Us of imagination helps us to get in touch with the reality in which we are living, enfolded within the goodness of God.

All methods of prayer are means to an end. The end is that our hearts may be open to God, so that the Spirit may pray in us. Therefore, don't fuss about sticking to a particular method. Follow the excellent advice of Dom Chapman: "Pray as you can, not as you can't"

God searches our hearts, so prayer can be very painful. "The word of god is like a two edged sword." It may reveal to us our own heart, shrivelled because deprived of the oxygen of love. It may reveal the emptiness of our own lives, the contradictions between our fine religious words, high moral tone and the reality of our hearts responding almost exclusively to our own immediate interest.

Prayer may be completely arid, as though we are in a void; the nothingness threatening to annihilate us. All this can be very painful. It is vitally important not to abandon the prayer when it is no longer pleasant, for the answer is in the pain. The source of the pain is our God-given longing to be at one with God, with ourselves, with all creation. Our spiritual journey is an at-one-ing process.

The Spirit who prays in us is a Spirit or compassion for all creation. The rest of all prayer methods is to be found in a growing sense of compassion for all human beings for all creation.

Gerard W Hughes S.J
THE TABLET 23 August 1997