I am not a quiet person.
This is no surprise to anyone who’s been in a room with me for more than five minutes. I’m a talker, and a loud one to boot. It’s not even that I’m extremely social — I’m an introvert, but I am just not one for quiet. I’ve usually got a million thoughts racing through my head, and I prefer to be listening to something — anything — over sitting quietly.
Because of this, calming myself to meditate or pray silently for an extended period of time has always been difficult for me. It doesn’t come naturally, so it’s easy to avoid. I’m much more likely to read the Bible, pray the psalms, or even journal — anything that keeps me active and doesn’t force my mind to be still.
A theology class I took one year offered extra credit for taking up the practice of silent prayer every day over Lent and writing a reflection on the experience. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea, but I was intrigued by the practice — as someone whose mind never seems to stop, the idea of settling into quiet seems as appealing as it does impossible. And at the end of the day, I am never one to turn down extra credit. So I gave it a shot.
Silent prayer is, quite simply, the practice of sitting in silence, quieting one’s own thoughts, and making oneself present to God. It isn’t unlike meditation or yoga — but instead of having the goal of mindfulness or activation, its purpose is to create space in the mind and in the heart for God — to allow Him to speak to us in the silence.
For the assignment, I decided to keep it simple. I’d spend eight minutes a day in silence. For some reason, that was the number that spoke to me. Five minutes felt like not enough time to really settle my heart and my mind, and 10 minutes felt overwhelming. Each day, after those eight minutes, I’d take notes about what I experienced. By the end of Lent, I actually came to enjoy my few moments of silence — as hard as they were — and I learned quite a bit about myself and about prayer along the way.
Lesson #1: My brain will never go silent. And that’s okay.
When I first heard about silent prayer, the number one reason I thought it’d never work for me was that concept of complete and total silence. I’ve never really gotten my brain to go quiet. I’m always thinking — and when I try my hardest to not think, I become consumed with the thought of how I shouldn’t be thinking. Or, I get entirely distracted and move on to something else.
The first few evenings, so much of my time was spent beating myself up over this. I’d wind up at the end of eight minutes frustrated and feeling like I’d accomplished nothing. It took finally convincing myself to lower my expectations and just be for a few moments for this feeling to pass.
I realized over time that, no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t going to be able to force myself to be quiet. And forcing myself to be quiet during my moments of silent prayer wasn’t going to bring me any closer to God. Instead, I learned to just sit, focus on my breathing, and be.
Now, I didn’t just let my brain go wild with any thoughts about laundry or homework. But I allowed myself to narrate what I was feeling, focus on the sights and sounds that surrounded me, and even talk to God. It was still a time of quiet where I gave myself the space to be calm and still — and that was the real key to silent prayer. Even if my thoughts were never truly silent, allowing myself to be who I am and to just sit in a space where I was open to God’s presence freed me to listen.
Lesson #2: God isn’t going to declare things to me.
Once I started to really listen, I struck problem — and lesson — number two. I’m always intrigued by stories in the Bible like the burning bush, where God just speaks directly to Moses. And I’ve often heard friends casually say they heard God speak to them. I’m often a little turned off by that language — because that’s never the relationship I’ve had with God.
So when I started silent prayer, I hoped that maybe this would change. If I tried hard enough, if I listened, maybe I could force myself to hear God’s voice come thundering down. So I sat, and waited… and heard only my own thoughts rattling around in my head. Sometimes I’d go down a path of reflection, asking God a question, and then I’d sort of find my own answer. But I became fixated on trying to figure out if that was really God’s voice coming to me. I mean, after all, it was my own thought.
It took talking this through with a spiritual director — a capable confidant who guided me through my prayer life, not unlike how a therapist might guide someone through their day-to day-life — to realize that I just might be overthinking this.
She asked me a simple series of questions. Who do I believe created me? If I believe in God, where do my thoughts ultimately come from? She reminded me that God is at work within me, so when I’m sitting in semi-silent contemplation and thinking big thoughts, for the most part when I’m having a prayerful thought it’s safe to say I’m in communication with God. The rest — Whose voice is it? How do I know? — is just details.
So, is God going to speak to me through a burning bush? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean the insights I have aren’t valuable — and it doesn’t make my relationship with Him any less meaningful.
Lesson #3: Place and posture matter.
The final lesson took going home for spring break and being away from my dorm to figure out. I was incredibly spoiled by my undergraduate experience, where I had a chapel down the hall from my dorm room. It was so easy to settle myself in the chapel and pray. When I was taking on the silent prayer challenge, I noticed a real difference between the nights I prayed in the chapel and the nights when I just didn’t feel like making the 50-foot trek — or the week I spent at home on break.
It wasn’t that the chapel had some kind of magical, spiritual effect on me. In my room, I tended to be on my bed or in a chair — and I lacked focus. When I was in the chapel, there were visual, physical reminders of what I was doing. I could gaze at the crucifix or the tabernacle, look around at the stained glass, and contemplate how God might be working in my life. When I sat in my room, it was all too easy to get pulled into thinking about something else the second my eyes shifted to my planner or my backpack.
Now that I’m not in college anymore and don’t have a chapel down the hall from my bedroom, I’ve had to become more creative about this. I still think it’s important to find a prayer space where I can clear my mind from unnecessary distractions — whether that’s a special corner of an apartment dedicated to prayer, or something as simple as an image of faith for me to focus on. And above all, the absolute worst place for me to practice silent prayer is in my bedroom. There’s just something too soothing and comfortable about it — and there’s a very real chance that I’ll just fall asleep.
So I’ve learned to prioritize that posture, even when I don’t feel like getting out of bed — because I know when I do, I’ll reap the benefits.
I’ve kept up with silent prayer on and off over the years since I first did this assignment. I’m certainly not perfect at it, and it takes quite a bit of practice. Some days, even eight or ten minutes still feels endless. But I’ve also learned so much about myself. This practice, as counter-intuitive as it seems for my personality, has shown me how to find quiet space within my own heart and make room in a busy world — and brain — to reach for a real encounter with God’s presence.