Many Advent hymns feature the idea of silence: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” or, “My Soul in Stillness Waits.” And then there is the beloved Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” Yet in our culture, silence can be hard to come by. We are often busy with work, holiday preparations for meals, shopping for gifts, and then attending holiday parties—perhaps with a considerable amount of travel mixed in. Even when we have available time, we may not know how to be in silence for long. Yet silent prayer—in which we do not actively try to make a lot “happen” in prayer with words or images—can be a valuable way to rest in God’s presence and prepare for the arrival of Christ.
There are different kinds of silence that we can experience in prayer:
- silence that waits patiently and expectantly for a word to arrive, in answer to a question or longing of the heart.
- silence that we can “fall into,” one that holds us, like a child resting on its mother’s lap (Psalm 131:2).
- silence that feels pregnant, as though some kind of a secret is already hidden in the silence, just waiting to be born.
Sometimes there is an impatience with silence, an unsettled desire for more, and a seeking that is akin to thirst and restless.
The Gospels offer us different models of silence: Zechariah who is temporarily mute (Luke 1:22), and Mary who ponders silently after the angel’s greeting (Luke 1:29) and the message of the shepherds (Luke 2:19). There is the silence of the magi, who choose not to return to Herod to tell him where the child is; they go another way (Matthew 2:12). Joseph dreams and acts and is a strong presence to Mary and Jesus, but a silent one. Jesus grows into adulthood, taking times for silence in solitude (Mark 1:35).
Although there are many methods for silent prayer, there is no one “right way” to pray in silence. Prayer is not about a method, but rather about relationship. All that prayer requires is placing ourselves in the presence of God with an open heart. God will do the rest. God comes to be with us: Emmanuel.