What Happens During Silent Prayer

Brother Elias Marechal, OCSO is a Trappist monk of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. He is the author of a luminous book on contemplative spirituality, Tears of An Innocent God: Conversations on Silence, Kindness and Prayer. If you don’t have it, do yourself a favor and get a copy.

The book is filled with many gems of wisdom and insight. Here is one example:

At times it may feel as though nothing is happening in that vast silence. And yet so much is happening!
In the endless region of our inner landscape, bit by tiny bit, we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, as we are changed by waves and waves of Silent Mercy; so that gradually we come to speak, think, and love as Christ does: gently, without fuss, in a marvel of beauty.

If you have any experience with silent forms of prayer, you understand what Brother Elias is talking about. It’s so easy — and tempting — to conclude that sitting in silence, merely repeating a prayer word or a Bible verse or a classic prayer like “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me,” is just a colossal waste of time. Nothing happens — except for maybe incessant feelings of boredom and restlessness.

Not to mention the incessant, ongoing drama of mental chatter that seems to blather on endlessly, jumping from distraction to distraction, chasing after thoughts and feelings like a magpie on the hunt for yet another shiny object.

Twenty minutes a day, repeating a prayer word and struggling to remain attentive while the mind chatters on — just how is this “prayer,” exactly?

Thank God for sending us wise teachers and guides like Brother Elias, who help us to see beneath the surface of our ordinary, everyday consciousness, to begin to recognize and appreciate the hidden (mystical) action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

To be sure, silent prayer does not make God love us any more than God already does. By itself it is no guarantee of  holiness or of mystical union with God. But if silent prayer doesn’t change God’s relationship with us, it certainly can change how we relate to God. It is a response to repeated injunctions in both Jewish and Christian scriptures to practice silence in the presence of God:

Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)

To you, God, silence is praise. (Psalm 65:1)

The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)

Learn to love and honor your interior silence. (I Thessalonians 4:11)

In addition to the Biblical call for silence, saints and mystics throughout the history of the Christian faith have also commended silence as the foundation of any contemplative practice.

“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.” Thomas Keating

“The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.” St John of the Cross

“Trinity! . . . lead us beyond all knowledge and light, to the highest summit of your mystic Word, where your simple, absolute, and changeless mysteries rest hidden in the luminous darkness of your silence.” Prayer of Dionysius the Areopagite

But immersing ourselves in prayerful silence is more than just a way of conforming to the spiritual precepts of the past. It brings its own reward to us today… only it’s not usually a reward we can easily discern, especially while we are praying.

“You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” This teaching from Jesus is the key to understanding the blessings of a sustained practice of silent prayer. The graces of silence are revealed over time, just as a tree takes time to grow, mature and bear fruit.

It is the fruit of silent prayer that shows us how worthwhile an activity it is.

But what “fruit” can we expect from prayerful silence?

Back to Elias’s insightful comment: “In the endless region of our inner landscape, bit by tiny bit, we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, as we are changed by waves and waves of Silent Mercy; so that gradually we come to speak, think, and love as Christ does: gently, without fuss, in a marvel of beauty.”

Silent prayer invites us into the long, slow, formational journey of becoming more and more Christlike.

But what does that mean? I don’t think it has anything to do with the signs and wonders attributed to Christ; I, for one, don’t know of anyone who can walk on water or multiply loaves and fishes. I think the promise of silent prayer is more humble: it invites us to manifest the mind of Christ — to take on the personality and psychology of the incarnation of Love.

This means: becoming more loving (more patient, more kind, more humble, more trusting, more hopeful, and so forth — see I Corinthians 13 for a few ideas). It also means embodying the fruit of the Spirit: not only love, but joy, peace, faithfulness, gentleness, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23). And it means beginning to behave like we see Christ acting in the Gospels: more merciful, more forgiving, more prayerful, more compassionate.

Once again: this is a slow process, a process of restoring the very image and likeness of God within us. It doesn’t happen in a day, or a weekend or maybe even a decade. But it does happen. I’ve noticed slow and gentle changes in my own heart — and others have seen it in me as well. I’m calmer, gentler, and more capable of chuckling at my own foibles.

Did silent prayer “cause” these positive changes? I wouldn’t go that far — I think grace is caused by the action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. But I do believe that silent prayer is a way of making myself more available for the Spirit’s hidden work in my life.

I’m assuming if you’ve read this far, you are at least interested in the spirituality of silence, if not already practicing a daily discipline of silent prayer. I encourage you to begin or to persevere, and I wish for you many days of joy and a quiet sense of your relationship with God deepening as you pray.

But we’re all human, so I know you will be like me, and have days when prayerful silence leaves you feeling restless and wondering “Why am I doing this?” Be gentle when those days come. Be gentle — and remember these wonderful words from Brother Elias. Beneath your surface-level restlessness, the Holy Spirit is washing you with wave after wave of silent mercy — and this cleansing process will foster Christ-like love within you, love that will blossom in your life “in a marvel of beauty.”

Amen! May it be so.

I’ll finish this blog post with one more picture of Brother Elias and me… showing that we really do know how to “go within”:

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