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Waiting for God in the still silence

03 October 2014

David Wolpert snatches moments of quiet

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 to me.

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 feelings.

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); 978-0-85746-244-2.

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