Let’s clarify what we mean by silent prayer in the Christian context. The experience of deep silence is so universal there’s a danger of getting too broad and abstract in our approach. Of course silence is the broadest and most abstract experience we can have. But I believe our approach to silence, when integrated, is deeply rooted in particulars of our faith tradition.
There is the silence itself, which John of the Cross refers to as “God’s first language.” Yet our approach, understanding, and way of holding silences are particular. Silent prayer and our Christian container for holding the silences are equally important. We need both for balance.
In the Christian context, silent prayer is always understood as “prayer.” Prayer is conversation with God. Most Christians understand prayer as a one-way monologue. A person inaudibly utters to God what is on their heart. However, as the Quakers point out, prayer as it’s popularly conceived is a one-way telephone conversation with few pauses to listen for promptings from the other end of the line.
Silent prayer balances the mistaken understanding of prayer as a one-way conversation or monologue by focusing on what’s most important: what is being communicated from the other end of the line. When we sit in silence waiting for God’s presence, our mind experiences some level of distraction. No matter the intensity of distraction, we wait. And when the chatter finally subsides, God can give us what we desire most: experiences of God’s self. The deepest experiences of prayer are sheer silence, which echo a primal peace beyond understanding, beyond conditioning, beyond choosing.
A Montana rancher spoke eloquently of this silence. He said his favorite part of the day is the stillness at dawn when the sun is peeking over the hills. Then he feels God’s presence. Then as he walks in the dawn’s light he feels a spaciousness and expansiveness—a lightness and clarity of mind that echoes freedom.