Just a few days into Lent, some of us may already be wearying of the penances we chose. We’re hungry and bored and not quite through the worst part of caffeine withdrawal. And our brilliant plan of praying a daily Rosary has left us falling asleep halfway through the second decade more often than not.
Would it be unreasonable of me to suggest adding yet another Lenten practice?
Because the Rosary is beautiful and the Liturgy of the Hours is wonderful and Lectio Divina is powerful. But the purpose of every form of prayer is to open our hearts to be still before the Lord, to approach him in silence and allow him to speak.
The trouble is that silent prayer is sometimes rather terrifying.
At best, we worry that we won’t know what to say, that we’ll be distracted and get frustrated and possibly fall asleep. At worst, we’re afraid to hear what God might have to say, so we keep him at arm’s length with the very devotions that were designed to help us draw close to him.
But the beautiful thing about silent prayer is that you can’t be bad at it. Because you can’t be good at it. Because it’s not about you.
Nobody is naturally good at contemplative prayer. It’s only ever a gift. Our job is to make space in our lives for God to move, not to manufacture prophetic words and flights of ecstasy. Our job is to show up.
So we choose the right time of day and the right space, we prepare with a few minutes of Scripture or some other form of prayer, and then we put aside everything and just make room for God. We talk to him about the things that we’re wrestling with or delighted by, but, ultimately, we try to be silent.
For some people, this might be more frustrating and less obviously fruitful than for others. Being still before the Lord so easily becomes navel gazing for many of us, or just tuning out and turning off our mind for a time. It’s important to remember that the goal of Christian prayer isn’t to be emptied, the goal of Christian prayer is to be filled with Christ.
So rather than just going to prayer with the goal of trying to quiet your mind (which sometimes seems impossible), choose an anchor to cling to, a phrase or image or meditative song. You might slowly repeat the name of Jesus, or “Lord, have mercy,” or “I trust in you.” You might hold a holy card with an image of the transfiguration or the Sacred Heart. You might imagine yourself holding the Christ child or anointing his feet.
How to pray with icons: A brief guide
The idea isn’t so much to work through that phrase or image, to ponder and wrestle with it, to come away with a summary of what you learned. The idea is to be still before the Lord and, when distractions come, to return to the image or phrase or song rather than becoming frustrated by your inability to focus.
You may find this approach to prayer very fruitful. You may find it entirely infuriating. You may find that you go to prayer for months and get absolutely nothing out of it. If so, praise God for that. Prayer has nothing to do with feelings. Prayer is a choice, And when you choose to give God that time each day, even when it comes with no consolations, you’re offering a beautiful sacrifice to him who first offered himself to you. There’s a real peace in knowing that whether or not you were as focused (or as caffeinated) as you ought to have been, you gave God the room to move in your heart.
Every day I drink some coffee, find a tabernacle, and sit silently with the Lord. Most days, I spend the whole time wrestling with distractions and frustration. I fall asleep. I check my watch a dozen times. I hear nothing. I don’t even necessarily feel much of a sense of peace. And at the end of 45 minutes, I walk out content, knowing that I showed up. I made space for the Lord in my life. That’s all he’s asked.
This Lent, consider adding one more thing: 15 (or however many) minutes a day of silent prayer. Figure out a time of day and a location that work for you, then sit with Jesus. Just open your heart and ask him to move. You may find that it’s the most fruitful thing you do this Lent.
How silence stopped terrifying me, and started healing me