I Can’t Talk My Way Out of Every Spiritual Crisis

Words don’t always make difficult situations better. I still haven’t been able to shut down my impulse to speak up when I should probably keep my mouth shut.

I’m the kind of person who always wants to help someone going through a tough time. And so I talk, I try to commiserate, and I do my best to think of something encouraging or helpful to say.

Maybe I’ve helped others sometimes, but plenty of other times I’ve felt like reaching into the air to grab the words and stomp them into oblivion before they land in the other person’s ears. I tend to overestimate the good that my words can do, and so I pressure myself to say something, anything, when sometimes I really just need to be present and remain available.

There’s a kind of theme that emerges in my own spiritual practices and in the stories I hear of others who practice contemplation. We want to talk our way out of a spiritual crisis, we want answers, we want definitive statements, we want the doctrine that unlocks the door that will alleviate our doubt, uncertainty, frustration, and pain.

I have imagined myself talking my way through difficult situations, as if my own chatter would somehow compel God to take notice and offer a solution once I reach a magical threshold of prayerful words. Perhaps there’s also a reverence threshold to my words where I try to sound like a prayer book… “Gracious, magnificent, and merciful God, bestow upon me, your servant, the full measure of your goodness…”

And yes, talking through our prayers can work and yes God can give us answers, but I can’t talk my way out of every spiritual crisis. And to be honest, I’m not sure that I would even want to be talked out of a crisis or given a magical solution to every issue in my life.

I imagine a parent holding a sobbing child without words, just offering presence and comfort. We wouldn’t criticize the parent for that kind of presence. There really is nothing to be said in the moment. The pain must be felt and the moment can only be resolved with presence.

There isn’t a physical God on earth to hold us quite so directly, and so I have overcompensated with words until they failed me. And when words failed and I couldn’t talk myself out of a spiritual crisis, I assumed that God had failed me.

But there is quite a lot more to God than the words we speak or the ideas scrolling through our minds. There is presence and comfort in silence, even if such a possibility appears counterintuitive or unlikely.

Even in this space where I only have words, images, and white space, I can’t talk you out of a spiritual crisis. I can’t give you the magic next steps to spiritual prosperity. I can only say that words have failed me, but God has not. If you step into that silence and stillness, there is something else waiting for you there. I can’t tell you what it is or what it will feel like. Even if you do find it, words may fail you.

Perhaps we can find hope in the possibility that we don’t need more words to be present for God. In fact,  I typically find it most helpful to use fewer words.

 

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Is Contemplative Prayer Biblical?

contemplative prayer biblical

 

If a Bible loving Protestant, especially an evangelical, asks “Is contemplative prayer biblical?”, it’s likely that this person is already assured of the answer.

“Contemplative prayer” as a defined concept does not show up in the Bible, and the same goes for the methods that contemplative prayer teachers share today. There is nothing quite like centering prayer or specific instructions about how to pursue silence in the Bible.

If you can’t find contemplative prayer methods in the Bible, then it appears to be checkmate, right? Without chapter and verse, there is no Biblical basis for contemplative prayer… except that the teachers of contemplative prayer quote a lot of scripture.

What gives?

It’s true that there is no specific instruction about how to engage in contemplative prayer, but there is plenty in the Bible about praying in silence, waiting on the Lord, seeking God in the solitude of the wilderness, praying always, and praying in secret/silence. You could say that we know about as much about prayer as we know about being a pastor.

We can list the limited details of serving as a pastor just as we could list the limited details of where and when to pray. If we made a list of how pastors go about serving today compared to the guidelines of the Bible, there is quite a bit that we could say doesn’t show up in the Bible–including just about all of the stuff in church leadership books that detail mission statements, vision statements, core values, and corporate leadership and HR guidelines.

I’m not listing those things to argue against them. Rather, within the biblical view of pastoring, we tend to expect the practical, day-to-day realities of pastoral ministry will require some innovation and problem solving on our own parts.

So, when we are instructed to pray in silence, to wait on the Lord in silence, to pray constantly, and to pray in secret, we are right to wonder exactly how to pray in this way.

What does it look like to pray in silence and solitude?

When we see that Jesus ventured off to solitary places, John the Baptist and Paul both sought God in wilderness solitude early in their ministries, and many key figures in the Old Testament experienced God in the wilderness, it’s only logical to ask how we should go about seeking God in these quiet, lonely places.

This is where a bit of church history can help us and show us how contemplative prayer intersects with the Bible.

The desert fathers and mothers sought to imitate the wilderness spirituality of Jesus and many other figures in the New Testament. They still ventured into cities to minister, wrote letters to the churches, and made themselves available to visitors, but they devoted the bulk of their time to prayer and work.

As these early Christians worked, they typically sought to make themselves available to God in silence, with some either breathing in a rhythm where they imagined the Holy Spirit filling them or praying the Jesus prayer which is based on the prayer of repentant tax collector (“The publican’s prayer”). Some used other ways to pray in silence, but over the years a simple breathing practice or prayer word/phrase stuck as the primary ways to pray in silence and solitude.

Most importantly, there is no dogmatic approach to a single way to pray. These Christians engaged in a variety of forms of prayer, giving thanks, making requests, and praying with prophetic insight. They didn’t demand only silent prayer, and different forms of silent prayer took shape over time as they learned to encounter God in the depths of their being.

This inner prayer that takes place in a heart that is still and receptive to God rather than reacting to thoughts and fears is often called contemplation or the prayer of the heart. While Jesus never described this precise outcome for silent prayer, he most certainly modeled this form of prayer and intersected with the biblical tradition that made space for silent prayer and waiting on God.

The teachers of contemplative prayer who pass down these traditions and practices for silent prayer that are grounded in biblical directives don’t pretend to teach centering prayer as the only way to pray in silence. Rather, it is a helpful way to be receptive and aware of God.

The point is to be silent, aware of God, and receptive to the Holy Spirit as directed by the Bible, but the details of the silence are up to us. While the traditions of the church are not the final word on these matters, there is a lot of wisdom in seeing which prayer practices have stood the test of time and proved their worth to Christians in a variety of settings over the years.

We are more than welcome to experiment with our own ways of being silent in solitude before God, but let’s not kid ourselves that our modern innovations are somehow superior or more biblical than the traditions passed down for generations. I’m personally most interested in doing what the historic church has found most helpful.

No one is going to argue about the Bible’s teaching to pray in silence and solitude, and so arguing over the details of how to do that strikes me as unhelpful. The teachers of contemplative prayer have literally based their prayer words and repetitive prayers on scripture, using simple phrases and words to let go of their troubling thoughts, to let scripture fill their minds, and to be fully present for God.

One final point bears keeping in mind here, and it’s a big one.

I have yet to read a critique of contemplative prayer from someone who had actually practiced it and had received spiritual direction from an experienced director. That critique may be out there, but regardless, the majority of the critiques I’ve heard and read are based purely on hearsay and conjecture without real first hand experience.

If you aren’t comfortable with a practice like centering prayer or sitting in silence isn’t helpful and life-giving for your soul, there is no one condemning you. I was once in your shoes, so I get it better than most.

Yet, I encourage you to consider that a large number of Christians throughout the history of the church have benefitted from contemplative prayer. Why would any Bible-believing Christian dismiss a practice like this based on modern conjecture and hearsay?

 

Learn more about contemplative prayer by checking out my related post: Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? 

 

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Can I Find Time to Pray While I Travel?

My daily prayer practices can fall into chaos during the holidays where schedules are scrapped due to travel and I certainly can’t focus on prayer if my mind is swirling with packing lists, present lists, and managing family relationships. How can I find time to pray over the Christmas and New Year’s travel season?

I was on the road last week, and there were certainly plenty of moments when I considered how to fit prayer into my schedule and plans. Here are a few practices that I’ve been using in my own travels and shifting schedule:

Develop Habits to Prompt Prayer

The easiest way to pray is to make it automatic. For instance, there’s a good chance that, like me, you are tempted to whip your phone out when you’re waiting in line or sitting in traffic.

I don’t blame you, and that was my default until I tracked my daily phone pickups with the Moment app. Now that I’m trying to limit myself to 40 phone pickups each day, I have reconsidered how I wait.

Waiting can act as a kind of trigger for prayer, using a few moments in line to quiet my mind with a deep breath and to return to a prayer word to guide myself toward greater awareness of God. Prayer is described as waiting on the Lord, so it’s just about the perfect invitation to pray.

Even if my regular prayer times are filled with travel and family gatherings, a regular prayer trigger or prompt can help me make more time for it.

Keep Track of Your Mental State for Prayer

Travel and family gatherings can be stressful and busy. For instance, I’ve caught myself becoming unreasonably anxious about getting to the airport on time and catching my flight.

I have finally figured out that, in my mind at least, I had treated the urgency of travel with the same alarm as a threat to my life or family. I have a little mantra that I say when I travel, “It’s urgent but it’s not dangerous” that helps me calm down when my mind ramps up into its highly alarmed threat avoidance mode.

Whether journaling or using an app like Examine or Examen Reimagined, a simple prompt to remain aware of my mental state while traveling can help me keep the events of each day in perspective and saves my mind from the afflicting thoughts that can make it so difficult to focus on prayer.

Make Space for “Quiet” Prayer When You Can

Even five minutes in a quiet room, a little time sitting alone, or a ten-minute walk can prove healing for my soul when I’m traveling. Of course the quiet I’m talking about is often personal quiet when I’m traveling. I have no control over what other people say or do!

If I can at least keep in mind that quiet will be good for my soul and my mental state, I can remain attentive and intentional about seizing that time whenever I can. This could be while doing the dishes in the kitchen by myself, sitting on an airplane with headphones on, or playing through some Taize songs while in the car with my family.

Give Grace to Yourself When You Struggle to Pray

Prayer has been practiced by Christians for centuries around fixed times and schedules because it works. When your schedule falls apart due to holiday travel, don’t fall into the trap of shame or guilt.

If you didn’t find time to pray, that’s a great opportunity to ask why and to look a bit deeper into your expectations for prayer, your priorities, and your habits. Judgment and shame can be paralyzing, but if you believe that God desires to be present for you, then you have an opportunity to address what keeps you from praying.

Mind you, I still prefer to have a set schedule where I know when and where I’ll pray, and I am always trying to be mindful about prayer when I’m on the go. Perfectionists may not find these tips very helpful!

By cultivating some habits, growing my awareness of my thoughts, and becoming more intentional about my time, I’ve managed to hold onto some prayer practices while I travel. Imperfect though they are, they are so much better than watching my spiritual practices fall into chaos when I hit the road.

 

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Thomas Merton Shares about Silent Contemplative Prayer vs. Our Reliance on Words

merton contemplative prayer

“We thank [God] less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance. It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.”

– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

What should I say to God?

That was one of the most pressing questions I face each day as I sought to prayer. I’m not sure if it was hard to find time to pray in the first place because I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps I struggled to find time for prayer because it seemed almost impossible or even fruitless at times.

Plagued by uncertainty and insecurity, I put so much pressure on myself to get prayer “right” by saying the “right words” to God in prayer.

If nothing happened, then it was on me. I simply hadn’t said the magic words to capture God’s attention or mercy.

I couldn’t tell you where this kind of prayer practice came from in the first place. My main theory is that my prayer life was more or less a void that lacked information about “how to pray” in the first place.

Without a clear idea of how to proceed with prayer, I filled in this blank slate with what I observed, what I heard, and what I reasoned on my own. Over time, I drifted away from grace and mercy, developing a more performative form of prayer where just about everything rested on me getting everything right–or more right than wrong.

Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation was like a slap in the face, shocking me out of this misconception of prayer. Through his teachings on silent prayer and silent contemplation in particular, I learned to trust more in God’s merciful presence than my own words.

I could even say that Merton gave me the language to characterize prayer as silence in the first place. Silence before God is prayer, but at one point in my life I would have denied that.

Since reading New Seeds of Contemplation, I’ve found that I can bring something to the practice of prayer, but the “success” of prayer has nothing to do with me. God is present regardless. My enjoyment of God’s presence may hinge on my ability to stop, but God is not dangling mercy to me based on my performance while praying.

Contemplative prayer can be restful, trusting in God alone while clearing away the clutter of our minds. That is the gift of prayer that we can receive by faith. I’ve found that prayer tends to involve saying fewer words, not more words.

And if I can sit in silence before God, I may have a much better idea of what to say when it’s time to make my requests known to God.

 

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Am I Doing Authentic Contemplative Prayer Right?

So much of my Christian spiritual formation has been hindered by a nagging question:

Am I doing this right?

I want to pray in ways that are authentic and sincere.

I want to be pray with the right techniques.

And these desires all lead to one overarching need when it comes to prayer: I want to guarantee a particular outcome from prayer. If I do this “right,” then authentic contemplative prayer guarantees a particular kind of encounter with God.

Everything hinged on the outcome and my belief that I could control it. If I just meant it a little bit more, prayed with a slightly better focus, examined my conscience a little more thoroughly, or practiced sitting in silence a little bit longer, then perhaps my prayer life would finally take off.

And by take off, I mean that it would yield RESULTS–stuff I can point at as evidence of God and of my own goodness. Of course the risk with such evidence of God and my own holiness is that I don’t really need all that much faith to pray and I will face the temptation to hold my own holy experiences over the mere novices that can hardly string a few minutes of prayer together.

Such an approach to “authentic” prayer is more like I’m taking myself off the rails.

Seeking a spiritual experience or “consolation” as an outcome from a time of prayer is a common trap that Christians face in their spiritual growth. Contemplative prayer teachers such as Thomas Merton and Martin Laird warn us that such examination or prayer is quite common. Thomas Keating notes that the thought of enjoying contemplative prayer can turn into a distraction that pulls us out of a moment of intimacy with God.

So, what does authentic contemplation look like?

Cynthia Bourgeault writes that it’s a returning, again and again, to a sacred word, image, or practice, such as breathing. It is a complete reliance on God who has given us everything need and dwells within us before we even had a chance to prove our piety and worthiness.

God’s grace is upon us while we pray, and so we can let go of our desire to prove ourselves or our techniques as authentic. We can only clear space in our schedules and our minds for what God provides.

You don’t have anything to prove to God. You can only receive what God gives. The pressure is off. The silence is an invitation, a moment to live by faith in the present love of God that has always been here for you through the work of Jesus the Son and the indwelling of the interceding Holy Spirit.

 

 

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