The greatest experience I have of God is in silence. Even though, as a priest, much of my life is spent talking about God—teaching and explaining God to others and reflecting on the mystery of God—it is silence that provides me with an experience of God that is unique.
At first glance, this way of prayer might not appear like prayer at all. It does not consist of much speaking, thinking, or reading. This way of prayer is more about being than anything else. There is no doing: no long prayers, petitions, novenas, or reading.
When we sit in silence, we are not looking for consolations, insights, answers to difficult questions, or anything else. (Though if God chooses to give them, we can accept them with gratitude.) Instead, we are, quite simply, sitting in silence, or in other words, attempting to rest in him beyond words, ideas, and images. When I speak about this way of prayer, people often close their eyes as if they were savoring fresh, cold water on a sweltering summer day. When their eyes open they look at me with a smile that seems to say, “This is what I need so desperately.” They “need” it for the same reasons I do. We are distracted, noisy, confused, and torn in various directions. We are overwhelmed, anxious, insecure, afraid, and weak in the midst of countless temptations and endless change.
Despite how many spiritual books we read and prayers we recite, this feeling of being tossed about at sea continues to increase. Even though we experience a reprieve at times with insights from Scripture, vocal prayer, the example of the saints, and so on, there is still something more that we need. St. John of the Cross says that “our greatest need is to be silent before this great God with the appetite and with the tongue, for the only language he hears is the silent language of love.” Silence before God is not only our greatest need; it is also our greatest teacher.
A few years ago, I realized that no matter how much I read and study, my knowledge and insights are, in the end, limited. It was as if all my talking to God and thinking about God brought me to the edge of a cliff. To get to the other side, I would need something else. That something else, I finally realized, was silence.
I began to follow this inclination toward silence more and more each day. I would sit for fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, sometimes even a whole hour, opening my heart to God alone in silence. When I would get tangled up in my thoughts, I would simply say the name of Jesus or Abba, or recite a short prayer from Scripture, such as “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20), “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9), or “Draw me after you” (Song of Songs 1:4), so as to bring my attention back to the Lord, with whom I was desiring just to be.
One of the first fruits that we discover from praying in silence is the simple yet profound realization that we are not our thoughts. For almost my entire life I identified my self with my thoughts. If I felt lonely, afraid, or inadequate, then I identified myself with these things. Instead of being a child of God made in his image and likeness, I was whatever my thoughts were telling me simply because they appeared to be true. Silence provides us with the space to discover that our thoughts, like the passing clouds, are simply a facet about us and not our whole self. Beyond them, like the clouds, is a clear blue sky, the presence of God, in whom we discover our real identity.
A second fruit from praying in silence is the discovery of the nearness of God. Even though I knew in my mind that God dwelt inside of me, subconsciously I lived most of my life believing that God was “out there,” distant from me. God, in this mindset, is more like an alien, inhabiting some remote galaxy, rather than a loving Father who holds all creation in his hand. Through sitting in silence, we can experience that God does not live far away but is one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
When I reflect on my own relationship with God, and ask myself what I desire, the answer that comes back is very simple: God. I don’t want just to think about God or talk about God, as necessary as both of those things are. I want God. Without silence, not only do I become a slave to impulsive decisions, fear, competition, inordinate desires, and anxiety, but my perception and experience of God will be, at best, immature. This is because God is ultimately beyond our words, language, and concepts; and silence is a bridge leading to a deeper and more mature relationship with God. In this deepening experience of God in silence we can encounter from the very depths of our being a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8) and not the distant, detached, dictator God that we, and our culture, often envision God to be.
Lest I fool myself into thinking I have discovered some mystical secret, the reality is I have discovered nothing new. God has been recommending this way of prayer from the beginning. He says, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). In other words, silence leads to intimacy. Perhaps the reason I never heard this before was because I wasn’t listening.
-Fr. Jeremiah Shryock, Amid Passing Things: Life, Prayer, and Relationship with God