Rossini: Silence essential to prayer of the heart
One of the elements of mental prayer that the saints frequently speak of is silence. St. John of the Cross wrote, “The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul” (“The Sayings of Light and Love,” no. 100). What do the saints mean by silence? Why is it so important to prayer? How can we employ it?
At its most basic level, silence means an absence of noise. The silencing of external noises can be both a remote and an immediate preparation for mental prayer. Our world is filled with noises, especially man-made noises. I don’t just mean the kids wrestling in the living room. Noise comes in the form of radio, TV and smartphones. It comes from cars, snow blowers and lawn mowers. All these things can distract us when we try to pray.
We can also think of the stimulation of our other senses as a kind of external noise. Sight, taste, smell, touch – all can draw our eyes off God and onto created things.
When we go to pray, we should turn off our cell phones – if not leave them in another room. Use of blue screens just before bed has been shown to induce insomnia. The same activities just before prayer are apt to make our minds dissipated, running all over the place, often on trivial things.
Hardly anyone would eat while doing mental prayer. But what about praying just after a good meal? Besides the fact that digestion might make us sleepy, our minds may linger on the delicious food we just consumed. Similarly, a cup of coffee just before prayer might keep us alert. The same cup during prayer can pull us away from God. It’s no coincidence that fasting and prayer go together.
Some people enjoy playing Christian music while they pray. Perhaps surprisingly, no saint that I am aware of recommends this practice. Music can easily draw attention to itself, even when it is meant for worshipping God. We can easily delight in the melody, the lyrics or the excellence of the musician, rather than turning to God. Music can be a wonderful tool for communal prayer, but mental prayer always has a component of listening, and music can get in the way.
Maintaining silence when we pray sets our prayer time apart from everything else we do. In Scripture, the word “holy” means precisely “set apart.” Keeping silence during prayer is like retreating to a private monastery. We set aside all worldly occupations and preoccupations to make the time sacred.
The essence of mental prayer is a heart-to-heart exchange with God. In a recent podcast on prayer, Archbishop George J. Lucas teaches:
“We realize that if we have an important, life-altering relationship with another person, that always involves spending time together. It involves communication. And if that communication is going to be real and generous, it means that I’m going to share some of myself in appropriate ways. It also means I’m going to be quiet and listen and allow the other person in the relationship to share something with me” (“Why Prayer Matters, Part I,” discerninghearts.com).
And so, silence is tied to love. It is tied to detachment from all that is not God. It forms a foundation for an open spirit, one that is more concerned with the other than with self. Silence prepares us to hear God so that we may be changed by our time spent with him.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary” released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.