AT ONE point in my prayer journey, I decided that I was going to
sit on top of a hill for three days. I wasn't going to bring any
food, just some water and a sleeping bag. No tent, no books,
nothing to write with. I was going to spend time in solitude and
silence. Of course, God was going to show up immediately and talk
So I set off, beginning the journey with enthusiasm and vigour.
I was so excited that I would soon be talking with God! When I
reached the top, I sat down, placed my sleeping bag and bottle of
water beside me, and began to pray.
Nothing happened. Soon my legs began to fall asleep, and my back
got stiff. I was thinking about all sorts of things other than God,
especially about how much time had passed. After I couldn't take it
any more, I allowed myself to look at the little clock I had
brought with me: 20 minutes had gone by. No God, no revelations, a
sore back, and two days, 23 hours and 40 minutes to go.
I began to laugh. In that moment, many of my ideas about prayer
and who I was as a pray-er crumbled to the ground. Prayer was
obviously not something I could "do"; it wasn't something I could
make happen or force or cause to come into existence. God created
me; I did not make God; therefore, I could not cause God to speak
when I wanted God to speak. I had to listen, and that meant not
knowing what I would hear, or when I would hear it.
I did stay on the hill for those three days. No voices, no great
theophanies (actually seeing or hearing God directly). But I did
learn something about listening and about how to listen: listening
through all the distractions and habits of my own mind; listening
even when I didn't want to listen - when my body ached, when it
wasn't a good time, when no one would talk to me.
One of the things I learned was that if I was faithful in my
prayer, if I prayed even when it seemed futile, then eventually I
would begin to notice that God is present.
This lesson is what the Desert Mothers and Fathers discovered,
and what they speak to us down through the centuries: if they hung
in there - stayed in their cells and kept praying even when
assaulted by "demons" and battered by distractions - eventually
Jesus would enter their hearts and minds, and his saving grace
would transform them. They would hear his words to them; God would
write a new law upon their hearts (Jeremiah 31.33).
Are we all called to go into the desert alone or to sit up on
the top of a hill? No, we are not; nor are such actions necessary
for the practice of silence. Silence challenges us, however;
entering into silence does require a certain amount of discipline
and commitment. Silence and solitude are the basis for prayer
practices. Thus the ability to rest in silence is both required for
the practices and strengthened by them.
One of the best ways to begin practising solitude is to notice
times when silence occurs naturally in our day. Even those of us
who are incredibly busy have moments when we are alone, when
nothing is happening. Usually we ignore these moments, or find ways
to fill them. Instead, we can appreciate these times and savour
them. We can use these times to turn inward and attend to our
This is the first of four edited extracts from Creating
a Life with God: The call of ancient prayer practices by Daniel
Wolpert (BRF, £7.99; CT Bookshop £7.20);