“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.
Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash