This Lent, our Director Angus Ritchie is writing a weekly blog on silent prayer. His first blog describes one way of putting this into practice, the second blog looks at some of its fruits in our life and third blog explains how silent prayer differs from “mindfulness,” and why its value lies in more than its effects. In this fourth blog he explores how silence sits alongside other forms of prayer, as we seek to discern God’s action in our midst.
Many of you will know Sister Josephine, who we are blessed to have as Chaplain at CTC. She is fond of pointing out that in the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3, God only speaks once Moses notices the bush and goes over to look at it. “How many burning bushes do we miss?” she asks.
We’ve thought in the previous weeks about how silent prayer helps us develop a sense of attentive waiting, so that, like Moses, we notice the burning bushes. But how do we hear the Lord’s voice when he addresses us?
As I said in the last blog, Christian prayer has a different purpose from mindfulness. Christian prayer involves an encounter with the crucified and risen Christ. Silence is a crucial part of that encounter, but so are words.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is the Gospel’s supreme examine of attentive waiting. At the end of the infancy story, Luke tells us that she “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2.51). We discern what God is doing by pondering the events of daily life, where we believe his Spirit is at work, so often precisely the people and places the world overlooks and belittles; Mary, in Joseph, in Nazareth.
It’s good to have a simple discipline of reviewing the day and its events, noticing where grace was given and received and repenting of the times we refused it or simply passed it by. (The daily service of Compline offers one opportunity to do just this).
But Mary does not only ponder the events of daily life. It is clear that she meditates deeply on Scripture. The Magnificat (her song of joy in Luke 1.46-55) weaves together verses from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel with words from a range of different Psalms. Scripture gives Mary the framework for interpreting reality, and discerning her place in God’s story.
This means Mary can act immediately and courageously when that is what is needed (cf. Luke 1.38,39). And she can wait patiently when that is what circumstances require, however painful and bewildering they may seem (cf Matthew 12.46-50; John 2.4,5 and 19.25; Acts 1.14).
Like Mary, we need to recognise the movements of the Spirit, and discern the appropriate response. Which brings me back to Sr Josephine.
Josephine lives in a house with three other sisters, and says that from her room she can tell who has come into the convent by the way they open the door and walk up the stairs. “That’s what it is like with discernment,” she told me, “we learn to recognise the sound of Lord’s footsteps from the stories of Scripture and our experience of Divine Providence in our lives.”
Different people will be drawn to different ways of meditating on the stories of Scripture and our experience of God in daily life. These can include discussions in small groups, and forms of individual prayer like the Examen or Lectio Divina. We may also use also the Rosary Prayer (whether individually or in groups) in which we stand alongside Mary meditating on the mysteries of salvation recorded in the Scripture and relating them to daily life.
We might want to talk with a “soul friend” (an experienced companion on the journey) to help us find the pattern of prayer that is most helpful for each one of us.
Whatever pattern helps us reflect on Scripture and on daily life, it needs to be firmly anchored in attentive waiting – in that depth of interior silence which grounds Mary’s meditation and her vocal prayers and praise. However else we pray, it is good to spend some time each day in stillness as we say the simple words: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”