February 24, 2021
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6:5-7)
Almost comically, I first realised I was suffering from tinnitus (ringing in the ears) at a silent prayer retreat. I kept wondering what electronic equipment had been left on in the house. I mentioned it to the other group members at the end of the sessions. Two said they had tinnitus too, but they had learned to screen it out when praying in silence.
“How do you do that?” I asked. “By listening past it. By asking God to give me one thought or one picture that I can concentrate on,” was the reply. “That way I walk with God wherever he leads me.”
Years ago, I was introduced to poustinia. That’s a Russian word, meaning “little desert” because it acknowledges the experience of the Desert Fathers of the early church in getting away from the busyness of life to be still in the isolation of the wild and hear God speak.
It’s something like a confined space with, typically, a chair, a table and a cross or ikon to contemplate upon. Nothing else. The contemplatives of old spent hours in prayer inside one. It’s also possible to make a small poustinia in your home – even just a chair – which is set aside for time alone in silent prayer.
It’s quite a discipline. I find the first 30 minutes or so very noisy indeed. My head is filled with things to do, or forgotten, regrets, fears or desires. Usually at the point when I almost despair of finding silence, God gives me one simple thing – often a Bible verse or a memory I can explore and seek its meaning for my growth in Christ.
Silent prayer for me is more about “Who am I?” than “What do I do now?” In silence I can let God show me the treasures of his Word and his love which has been shaping me through the years. In silent prayer I can dare to open myself, in the safety of his love, to the work of God’s Spirit. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Simply be still, know his presence and follow him beyond the noise, into and through the desert.