Finding God in Silence

About this article

"Be still and know that I am God." This article provides information and motivation for a contemplative prayer life. Helpful suggestions for dealing with wandering thoughts, such as the use of a mantra, and dealing with "dry spells" fill the article. Judy Esway is both down-to-earth and inspirational in her writing. This article could easily be used with students.

If you are feeling unfulfilled in your prayer life, take heart. This author says sometimes all it takes to is to be silent and listen.

IS YOUR PRAYER LIFE IN A RUT? Are there days when you feel like quitting altogether because you can't seem to find God anymore? If so, you may be closer to God than you think. You could be in the "night of the sense," as Saint John of the Cross calls it, the beginning stage of contemplative prayer.

In his best seller, Open Mind, Open Heart, Father Thomas Keating describes this frustrating period when the well of sweet feelings runs dry. "One reaches the point where there is nothing new to be thought, said or felt.... The emotionalism and sentimentality of childhood are beginning to be laid aside in favor of a more mature relationship with God."

This is a critical time, a time when many lose interest in prayer. Some have even quit because they were convinced they were sliding backward. Fortunately, when it happened to me I knew something about it. I had been cautioned by spiritual friends who told me that someday the umbilical cord of emotion would be severed. It was the only way to grow. But knowing what was happening didn't make it any easier. I wasn't at all sure that I was ready to move into this quiet, foreign land.

'Be Still and Know I Am God'

Silence--sweet scary silence. We want it. We don't want it. We crave it, but we're afraid of it. Silence makes us nervous. Lulls in conversation are quickly filled with idle, nonsensical chatter. Talk about the weather, tell a corny joke, say something--anything! Anything is better than silence.

But silence is where it happens. Silence is where we learn about ourselves. Silence is where we find God.

Spending even 10 or 15 minutes once or twice a day just sitting quietly, sinking into silence, will change your life forever. This focused concentration will spill over into all areas of your life and move you to a place of peace, creativity and inner healing.

There are many wonderful books on prayer--from the Christian classics such as Interior Castle, the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila; The Dark Night of the Soul, by Saint John of the Cross; and The Cloud of Unknowing, to more contemporary books like Open Mind, Open Heart, by Father Keating. But you don't have to read them all before you begin to pray this way. You just begin, a little each day. And you learn along the way.

You can keep your rosaries and prayer books nearby. There will be times when you'll just want the comfort of them. Simply holding them in your lap or fingering your beads will help you bridge the gap into silence. You may find yourself going back and forth for a while, and that's all right. We must each find our own way. There may even be periods when you'll want to jump out of silence altogether and revert to your former way of praying, where you knew what you were doing and were in control. You can if you wish. But it won't be nearly as satisfying once you've tasted the sweet, mysterious silence.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing writes of two signs to help you recognize that God is calling you to this type of prayer:

1) The interior sign is a growing desire for contemplation constantly intruding in your daily devotions.

2) The exterior sign is a certain joyful enthusiasm welling up within you whenever you hear or read about contemplation.

If you are leaping out of your chair with recognition, then don't be afraid of the silence. And feel not one iota of guilt that you can't pray the way you used to, that you find yourself suddenly speechless. Your communication with God will not depend on words anymore. Like lovers who've said it all, you'll now gaze into each other's eyes.

Wandering Thoughts

I've heard people say they'd given up contemplative prayer because no matter what they did, they just could not clear their minds of thoughts. They wrongfully assumed that contemplatives are able simply to sit down, make their minds blank and immediately move into some sort of ecstatic state.

First of all, it's impossible to make your mind completely blank. Even when you think you've done it, you're thinking, "My mind is finally empty of thoughts." But what about that thought?

My friend Eddie Ensley, who has written extensively about contemplative prayer, states: "This haze of thoughts was with us all along, buried deep within us, with a good strong cork stopping up the bottle. They were there unnoticed causing irritability, high blood pressure and fatigue. In meditation, you allow God to uncork you and a parade of cloudy images and thoughts marches by."

Have you ever been to a parade and become bored with it? I have. And there I am. There's nothing I can do to stop the parade, so I have to endure it. My body is there, but I'm not. My attention is somewhere else. This is the same with prayer. Your wandering thoughts are trying everything they can to get your attention, but you just let them come and let them go.

At some point, an especially dazzling, noisy, glittery thought does grab you, and you are caught up in it for a moment. When you become aware that you've followed this thought, well, just let it go now and let it pass down the street along with the rest of the parade. That's all you do with wandering thoughts. Just let them go gently, one after another, and soon the parade will be over. You'll have moved into a place of deep silence.

But then again, every parade you've been to has had a few stragglers. Just when you think the parade is over, you hear more music. And from around the corner and down the street comes another float, another band, a few more clowns. They were lagging behind the rest, and now you have to wait for them to pass!

Be patient. Endure it all. Let it come and go until one day you'll learn how to ignore the whole parade. And please don't think you've been wasting time, waiting for the parade to end so you can begin to pray. You've been praying all along!

So don't let the wandering thoughts upset you. And don't think you have to make judgments about them, such as trying to keep the good thoughts and eliminate the bad. It's best to treat them equally. Let them all come and let them all go.

Sacred Word

An effective way of dealing with wandering thoughts is to use a sacred word or phrase, often referred to as a mantra. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you a mantra, and begin to use it whenever you notice you're having a thought. You could use God, Jesus, Father, Mother, friend, love, peace, calm, Spirit or anything you feel inspired to use.

After using a sacred phrase for a long time, however, I found that it, too, became a distraction. Now I don't use a mantra at all. When I notice I'm caught up in some thought, I focus my attention on my breath, especially as it moves in and out of my nostrils. This brings me back to the present moment and leads me down again into silence. You can use breathing in the same way you use a sacred word. As soon as you notice you are thinking, gently let the thought pass by. It's not necessary to "wrestle" it away, but ever so softly, return your attention to your breath: in and out, through your nostrils, down deep into your body, down to your toes.

Now while you may become somewhat expert in keeping your attention focused, becoming adept at some sort of exercise or discipline is not the goal. The goal is to use whatever discipline you can to awaken you to the reality of God present within you. For it is friendship we desire, intimacy, a love relationship with our Creator.

All the techniques in the world won't make us friends of God. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. Our part is to be faithful to our commitment.

Dry Spells

Falling in love with God is much like falling in love with anyone else. In the beginning it's fireworks, bells and sweet feelings. It's walking on clouds. It's forgetting yourself and becoming totally absorbed in the "other." It's a honeymoon we think will last forever.

But as we all know, honeymoons end. They have to end. We couldn't survive a honeymoon that lasts forever--at least not in this world! And while it may seem we're slipping away from God because our feelings are calming down, our relationship is in fact growing deeper. That is, of course, if we continue to pray, even when we think God has abandoned us. This is especially difficult for people like me, who've had a strong conversion experience. Even though friends had warned me of this stage, still I lamented, "Where did God go? Doesn't God love me anymore?" Then I read The Dark Night of the Soul. There seemed to be a natural progression in prayer, stages one could almost expect. St John of the Cross writes:

"When they are going about these spiritual exercises with the greatest delight and pleasure, and when they believe that the sun of Divine favour is shining most brightly upon them, God turns all this light of theirs into darkness, and shuts against them the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which they were tasting in God whensoever and for as long as they desired.... God now sees that they have grown a little, and are becoming strong enough to lay aside their swaddling clothes and be taken from the gentle breast; so He sets them down from His arms and teaches them to walk on their own feet...."

How consoling it was to learn that God was still with me, but silent now, standing in the shadows, hoping I would begin to trust in our friendship. Hoping I would grow into a spiritual "adult." I needed to love God for God, just as God is. Why did I always expect gifts? And why did I need so much reassurance? God wanted to know if I would be faithful in the dark, dry times as well as in the bright, sweet times.

Dancing in the Dark with God

In some way this reminds me of our three granddaughters. Many grandparents lavish gifts on their grandchildren. With every visit they bring something, even if it's only a candy bar or pack of gum. We never did that, and I guess I must have felt a little guilty about it.

One day I said to our daughter, "You know the reason Dad and I don't bring the kids gifts all the time is because we want them to be happy just to be with us. We don't want them to anticipate our visits because they think they're going to get a gift."

She agreed, answering, "Mom, they are happy just to be with you." Of course, there are gifts on their birthdays, Christmas and special occasions, but mostly "we" want to be their gifts. We want them to remember how we spent time with them, played cards, told stories and just loved them.

I want them to remember our little ritual: We darken the bedroom, light candles, play classical music, and three little girls and "Grandma" dance. There are no rules. It's all free-flow, whatever they feel like doing. Maybe one will crawl up onto the king-size bed and suddenly she's a fairy princess, waving her magic wand, issuing commands to us, her willing subjects. We all get into the story, which can change from one moment to the next.

At some point, when they're dancing and playing, I fade into the background. I sit in the comer and just watch, totally captivated by their beauty and imagination. After a while they get so caught up in their play and fantasies they don't even know I'm in the room. But every so often, because I can't resist, I sweep one up, and then another, to give them a hug and kiss. Soon they're back to their play and I'm back in the comer, watching them with a smile on my face. They are my pure delight, and they're not even aware of my presence.

So I can understand why God withholds spiritual consolation for long periods of time. God wants a "relationship." God wants to dance with us in the dark. God wants to visit with us, every day. Some days we'll play. Other days we'll tell stories. And there will be days we'll run out of words and simply sit together, content in each other's presence.

At times you may feel as if you're playing alone. You may feel as though you're telling your precious stories to the wall, or as if you're just sitting and wasting time. But know that God is there, delighting in you, grateful that you still come to visit, especially now when the gifts have all but disappeared.

Finding God in the Everyday

How does one survive the dry spells? I get through them by consciously "remembering" what happened in the beginning. I recall the honeymoon, the early days after my awakening. I know what happened to me was real, and I've been able to say, "Dear God, thank you for the many spiritual consolations you've given me. I'll always remember and treasure them. But if you decide not to give me another sweet feeling, it will be all right with me. Because I still have you, God, and you're all I really want."

Now, just when I've got you thoroughly depressed with my warnings about dry spells, I want to give you some good news. God does come back. There are moments when God simply cannot resist sweeping you up and showing you how deeply you are loved. And you'll experience the spiritual embrace that will heal you and take you through the next dry spell. It may not come during your time of prayer but will happen when you least expect it. It may be when you're driving to work, giving your children a bath or balancing your checkbook. You never know when God will surprise you.

The unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing has much to say about this. It's a lithe difficult reading for our times because of the exclusive language. The material is so rich, however, I offer it here and highly recommend that you read the entire book.

"Fear not.... Even though you think you have great reason to fear. Do not panic. Instead, keep in your heart a loving trust in our Lord.... Truly, he is not far away and perhaps at any moment he will turn to you touching you more intensely than ever in the past with a quickening of the contemplative grace. Then for as long as it remains, you will think you are healed and that all is well. But when you least expect, it will be gone again, and again you will feel abandoned....

"Still, do not lose heart. I promise you he will return and soon. In his own time he will come. Mightily and more wonderfully than ever before, he will come to your rescue and relieve your anguish. As often as he goes, he will come back. And if you will manfully suffer it all with gentle love, each coming will be more marvelous and more joyful than the last."

Such powerful and consoling words! Still, it doesn't change my stance. I don't expect God to sweep me off my feet anymore. But from time to time, out of the blue, something wonderful happens. And I experience God's touch in a powerful way, in a way that brings even greater healing and peace.

The best way to approach prayer is with an attitude of openness and gratitude. We leave our expectations outside the door, and we come into our sacred space--day after day, week after week--persevering, no matter what. If God lavishes us with gifts, we say, "Thank you, God. Oh, thank you." If we go through long, grueling dry spells, we say, "Thank you, God. Oh, thank you."

Why should our response be any different? The dry spells are just as much a gift as any spiritual consolation, because they're all part of an exquisite pattern. God knows what we need and what is best for our spiritual development. Our part is so simple: We just need to show up and breathe.

Take comfort in the knowledge that you are growing and expanding, even when you feel absolutely nothing. And know that God is smiling lovingly upon you, even more anxious than you for the next embrace.

So, if you've been having a few growing pains lately, it's time to rejoice! It means you're no longer a child. You're strong now--faithful, committed. And you can be sure that God is getting ready to use you.

Judy Esway is a free-lance writer and speaker from Mesa, Arizona. She is the author of four books on spirituality. This article is adapted from her book Real Life, Real Spirituality (for Busy People Who Want to Pray), Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut (phone 1-800-321-0411). She and her husband, Rick, have three grown children For comments or information on workshops, you can e-mail her at


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Published November 1, 1998.