As I have grown more fully into middle age, I find that my prayer has become much quieter. Years ago when I was first introduced to Ignatian imaginative prayer, my prayers were long and often elaborate, full of images both Biblical and personal. Occasionally I have gone back to read my journals from those earlier years, and I am surprised by how much there is to write about in each prayer: what Jesus is doing or saying in a Gospel scene, what Peter or Mary or Martha is doing, my role in in the scene, and sensory elements of the scene. As I grew older, though, my prayers grew shorter and more to the point.
Imaginative prayer became more like an entryway into ordinary conversation with Jesus, with the message from Jesus often brief: “Be kind,” “Let go,” or, “I love you.” As I half-joked with a retreat director, as an academic I tend to write and speak in long sentences, but one sign that it is Jesus and not me speaking in prayer is he speaks in short sentences, ones that sink into my bones and being.
My prayer has grown much quieter now, so quiet, sometimes, that I have wondered what is happening. Where have all the words gone? It’s not been the dryness or feeling abandoned by God—and I can pray imaginatively or converse with Jesus if I want. And, of course, I pray using words at Mass or reading Psalms in the morning. But something has shifted fundamentally; I now enjoy contemplative prayer most often. It’s an adjustment to sit in silence and let God be.
This summer while on retreat, I was gazing through a clear, well-cleaned window overlooking a wide and beautiful lawn and garden. I could see the sky, the ocean, flowers, trees, and an occasional rabbit hopping by. It occurred to me that it’s because the window is transparent that we can see the world through it for what it is; translucency lets light through. Silence in prayer can be like that. When prayer becomes quieter and more transparent, then everything else is allowed to be what it is, no less and no more.
That might not sound very exciting, compared to an intricate imaginative prayer. Yet everything is illuminated with God’s presence, albeit in a subtler way. A beautiful tree is still a beautiful tree, one that shows God’s work through creation without any words. The psalmist reminds us that, wordlessly, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1) The psalmist was talking about contemplative prayer. Watching a sunrise, it’s good to let go of words, let go of our concerns and our egos, and just be with God, without the fuss.
What if we brought that same attitude to everyone and everything else in our lives? We can then perhaps more easily find God in all things when we encounter them through that sheer transparent window of silence and let them be what or who they are: a beautiful plant, an adorable pet, a good friend whose presence is enough. Most of all, in silence, Jesus is that friend, the kind that we don’t have to talk with all the time, because we know the love is there, where God’s presence beyond words invites us to “come and rest” in him (Matthew 11:28).
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