We are beginning a series of ti morceaux on the subject of prayer. We began last month considering one of the “helps” to prayer (and reminders of it) often used in Catholic churches: votive candles. Let’s continue exploring other aids to prayer before we get into what prayer is in and of itself.
The most important aid to prayer is not a physical thing but a circumstance. It is also something quite difficult to obtain in the world of today unfortunately. I’m talking about silence. I realize that many people view their public worship in church to be prayer, and the sacred liturgy is full of “busy-ness.” But indeed all of the singing, responding, active listening, changes in posture and various other activities which we do at Mass do not aid our prayer at all if there has not yet been already a fundamental quieting of our hearts and minds to make all of this into personal prayer.
I’m defining silence here to be more than just the absence of ambient noise. In a more basic sense, this silence is a state of attention during which only God matters for us. While we are engaged in such a prayer effort, we seek not to be distracted by anything and to focus instead wholly upon what the Lord wishes us to notice. In other words, the person who does not take time for personal reflection and an eager pursuit of contact with God, especially before Mass begins, everything else we might do at worship, despite having some value surely, will not ultimately put us in touch with God in the way we need.
This preliminary kind of prayer is often called “centering prayer,” or “focusing prayer.” As one popular master of the spiritual life, the late Father Thomas Keating, once wrote: ““Centering prayer brings us into the presence of God and fosters the contemplative attitude of listening and receptivity. It is not contemplation in the strict sense, which in the Catholic tradition has always been regarded as a pure gift of the Spirit, but rather it is a preparation for contemplation by reducing the obstacles caused by the hyperactivity of our minds and of our lives” (see his book, Intimacy with God, p. 11).
So find a quiet corner of your house. Turn off the television, radio and computer; put your mobile phone on silent. Ask other family members if present to give you the time and space uninterrupted. Set apart time (at least 5 minutes at first), and while breathing slowly and steadily, in a comfortable position, first of all remember that ultimately nothing but God matters. His wisdom, His will and His love are what we seek. There are a few other ways to enhance this technique of taking time solely for the Lord, but I guarantee that in as little as a week or so of this kind of daily discipline, marked progress in all other kinds of prayer and in general in the moral life should begin to be noticeable. Give it a try!