Silent Prayer Every Day: How Much Do We Need?

A reader writes,

I just finished reading the article about having everything you need for Divine union. I want to share it with my Carmelite spirituality group. However, I don’t understand one sentence. It’s this one: “ I would invite you to pray every day, with at least some of that prayer including contemplative silence.” What is the antecedent of “that prayer”?

Thanks for your question. First, the grammar: by “that prayer” I mean whatever prayer you “pray every day,” in other words, you engage in on a daily basis.

Many people pray in different ways: some people prefer the Rosary, others like to use Ignatian forms of imaginative prayer, or the Liturgy of the Hours, or simply a spontaneous form of charismatic or conversational prayer… we are blessed with many different ways to pray.

My question came from someone who is dedicated to Carmelite spirituality, and since I’m not a Lay Carmelite I might not be as familiar with Carmelite methods of prayer. But if Carmelites are anything like Cistercians, I suspect that different members of your community pray in different ways.

Fr. Anthony Delisi, my mentor and monastic advisor, used to say — quoting Abbot John Chapman — “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” In other words, if you are the kind of person who loves to pray the Rosary but the Liturgy of the Hours leaves you uninspired, then by all means pray the Rosary! Or vice versa, or whatever. Because there are so many different ways to pray, it’s important to keep in mind that just as we all have different personality types, so too we all have different “prayer styles.” So — “that prayer” in my previous blog post just means “however you pray every day,” acknowledging that we all pray best when we pray in our own unique way.

But then, my advice is, make sure at least some of your prayer  is prayed in silence. So I’m suggesting that, even though there are many different ways to pray, each of us can benefit from cultivating silence into our prayer lives, hopefully on a daily basis.

Now, of course, some people are more comfortable with silence than others, and some people find silence as a way of praying more attractive than others. You can see this, if you ever go and spend time at an Adoration Chapel. Some people come in and sit very still before the Blessed Sacrament, lost in wonder and deeply silent as they pray. Others come in, and while they remain silent, they are constantly flipping through a breviary or a prayer book, or working their way through a Rosary or some other chaplet, or maybe even fidgeting as they prayer. I don’t mean to crtiicize such a person — I’m glad they’re there, praying! But it is my prayer that everyone can eventually learn to find that deep interior stillness and restfulness that marks a richly contemplative prayer practice.

So when I tell everyone “devote at least some of  your time each day to silence,” some people will take to that like a duck to water — settling in with a profound interior stillness, perhaps relying on a method like centering prayer or the Jesus Prayer, but certainly oriented toward resting in the silence. Others might find that the silence is unfamiliar to them, or maybe even feel slightly anxious in the silence. For them, relying on a more “verbal” method of prayer like the Rosary or the Liturgy of the Houses — prayed in silence, of course — is a helpful way to get more and more comfortable with the silence.

Once again, this is not about what’s the best or most advanced or mature way to pray. Each person needs to pray as they can, not as they can’t. But I think when someone embraces silence, even if they need to “fill it” with a practice like the Rosary, it is still a rich and nurturing (and scripturally sound) way to pray.

How Much Silence, Exactly?

So the next question someone might ask: “Okay, if I pray every day and devote at least some of my prayer time to silence, how much silence do I need?” I think the only truly useful answer is “it depends.”

Some people want an hour a day of silence. Others might follow the Centering Prayer guidelines, and seek to be in silent prayer for 20 minutes, twice each day. Others might find that the thought of spending that much time in silence is daunting, and they would be doing good to spend five or ten minutes in silence.

Each person is unique. Pray as you can, not as you can’t.

The Bible never tells us how much silence we need. When it says “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), it doesn’t say “Be still for twenty minutes, twice a day.” Likewise there’s no benchmark or “best practices” in the Catechism, either.

So here’s a general rule of thumb I would recommend to everyone: we need enough silence each day so that we have the ability to notice the silence. Let’s be real: most of us, when given a few minutes of silence, usually begin to think about whatever issues or concerns are at hand. We often find that when we settle in to exterior silence, we immediately encounter interior noise!

So I would suggest we need enough silence to give us time to learn to relax into the silence and truly notice it, without having to fill it up with thoughts, interior commentary, or whatever other feelings, ideas, etc. might be rattling around in our heads.

The idea is that when we truly notice it’s silent, we also truly notice that we can be still in it, and when we are still, it’s easier to truly know (recognize) the presence of God, right there in the middle of our prayer.

Some of us might be able to do that with just a minute or two of prayer. I’m more the type who needs twenty minutes or so, just to get the stream of consciousness in my noggin to slow down a bit. The silence is always there, underneath my thoughts. But if I’m too busy listening to my thoughts that I never notice the silence, then I’m not really praying, I’m just thinking — or daydreaming.

So to summarize: I hope that everyone who is serious about prayer will, indeed, pray every day, in whatever method or form of prayer most easily helps you to respond to God’s love. And I hope that everyone, no matter how much a “beginner” you might be, I hope everyone takes enough time during your prayer time to simply be silent, that you notice the silence, and learn to relax into it: all in the interest of being still and knowing that God is present.

Of course, if you want to learn prayer methods that are specifically designed to help us become more comfortable praying in silence, look at Christian meditation, Centering Prayer, or the Jesus Prayer in particular. But a method is not required: what truly makes silent prayer is simply a willingness to be silent with the understand that this is prayer. The Holy Spirit will do the rest

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.