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Mindful Prayer

(This “musing” is a fresh snippet from a book I’m writing: MINDFUL CHRISTIANITY.)

I went to an evangelical Christian prayer service recently. One after another person spoke to God in earnest, humble tones. They alternated between supplication and praise and a sort of commentary. Their words were directed at least as much to each other as they were to a supernatural supreme being. They were sharing opinions and perspectives with each other in the context of addressing God. There was a certain amount of jockeying for status that was evident in their prayers. A delicate verbal minuet was being performed. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the prayers, but it did seem obvious to me that there was much more going on than just a conversation with God – or, perhaps more accurately, a conversation at God.

In churches of all theological persuasions, worship includes quite a bit of verbal prayer by people addressing God – and each other. Relatively few Christians take time to listen for answers. But the listening part of prayer has been integral to Christian spirituality since the days of the early church. Mindful Christian prayer is about spending at least as much time listening as talking.

At that evangelical prayer meeting, I said nothing. My prayer was entirely about listening. I found myself needing the whole time to pay careful attention to what the others were praying aloud. I was working hard to stay mindful of their words, the emotions behind them, the intentions they carried. It took effort to stay awake to my own reactions to their words, releasing opinions and judgments that arose. It took focused attention to remain fully spiritually receptive to what they were saying, and to maintain a softness of heart and mind toward them.

St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 challenged Christians to “pray without ceasing”. An anonymous 19th c Russian layman wrote “The Way of the Pilgrim”, one of the great classics of Christian spirituality. He took St. Paul’s words to heart. He recited what is known as the Jesus Prayer constantly: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me, a sinner.” He used it as what the Hindus would call a “mantra”, repeating it so much that it became a subconscious “hum” that constantly permeated his life. His book is a testament to the effects of this spiritual practice. As he wandered around Russia, he was able to serve many people as a kind of “spiritual midwife”, enabling personal transformations, reconciling conflicts, and inspiring acts of charity. This practice is integral to the Philokalia, the foundational text for Eastern Orthodox Christian spirituality. The “Pilgrim” repeated a verbal prayer that became a silent prayer that went deeper than its own words, transforming into an attitude of deeply humble receptivity. It was a verbal prayer that transmuted into a prayer of listening.

Such was St. Paul’s insight in the letter to the Romans, in which he said “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) The biblical Greek word for “spirit” was pneuma – breath. One powerful practice of mindfulness meditation is to focus on the breath. Simply being mindful of the air flowing into us and out of us is a great way to start paying attention to all else that comes to consciousness in the here and the now. No words are necessary to associate with these sighs. So it is with prayer: the expression and the impression of it are one process. One naturally flows into the other. If you try to locate in space and time the point between breathing out and breathing in, you’ll get lost in paradox. The “now” is not a fixed point, but rather the present awareness of a flow that never stops. Talking to God and listening to God are aspects of one continuous flow of relationship of our small “s” selves with the capital “S” Self in which we inter-exist with all beings.

Another way that Christianity expresses this flow is the interplay of words with the Word. We may use words to pray, but the One to whom we pray is but one Word, which subsumes and also transcends all other words. We pray with words. We are answered with the Word, which transcends human language. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” opens the gospel of John. The Word inspires words, and in turn those words are completed and rendered silent before the Word.

The Quakers, or the Society of Friends, represent a Christian tradition that focuses much more on listening than on talking, on asking questions more than pronouncing answers. They deliberate about important matters for their community by drafting “queries”. In their meeting-houses, Quakers sit in silence and let these queries sink deep into their hearts. When they feel the Spirit move them to speak, only then do they rise, speak, and then continue in silence until someone else is moved by the Spirit. Their worship is overwhelmingly devoted to quiet inner listening, “waiting upon the Lord”. After sitting with their queries, sometimes for years, Quakers make changes in their common life by consensus. In the 18th century in colonial America, Quakers queried whether or not they should own slaves. John Woolman was a Quaker who visited meeting-houses up and down the colonies. The “Journal of John Woolman” is a great spiritual classic, in which he richly describes the qualities of the silence in different Friends meetings. Up from this silence he rose on many occasions to share how the Spirit had moved him to stand against slavery. Largely through his humble, patient persuasion, the Quakers voluntarily gave up holding slaves, long before the abolitionist movement became a significant force in America. His Journal is a testament to the practical, life-affirming power of prayer that is focused more on listening than on talking. In this way, Quaker silent worship is a form of Christian mindfulness practice.

In my own experience, the best thing I can do for my friends is to listen to them. If I’m doing too much of the talking, then I’m not adequately listening. And when I listen, I do best if I really listen: just be present in silence and give my friend my full, compassionate, truly interested attention. The fourth century Christian mystic, Gregory of Nyssa, said that “we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire.” Mindful prayer is being God’s friend, and letting God be a friend to us: simply being, attentively, with each others’ being.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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