Be still and know that I am God
Lord, teach us to pray
Last year I spoke at a conference for pastors of the Apostolic Faith Mission, the oldest Pentecostal Church in South Africa. The conference was held in Modimole in Limpopo, and was attended by about 200 pastors. Surprisingly some of their leaders had read my book on Icons and had become interested in exploring the insights of Christian tradition as I discussed in my book, something quite alien to their own experience. But they had discovered Icons and with that also the contemplative tradition within Christian spirituality. I found the whole experience of being with them thought-provoking. After all, they were discovering something important in Christian tradition that most of the mainline churches had also forgotten about. This was reinforced last weekend when a group from the same Pentecostal background called "In Via," or "On the Way," came to Volmoed for a workshop on learning to pray in silence. They, too, had in the past been more familiar with praying in tongues and singing with gusto accompanied by bands and loud music. But now In Via is exploring the place of silence in the life of faith, and so last weekend their focus was also on contemplation.
On one occasion the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach them to pray. They had observed how he himself on regular occasions drew aside from them and the crowds and went to pray on his own. They would have been familiar with praying together in synagogues, but not with praying alone and in silence, though on occasion Jesus' prayers burst into cries of agony and tears. So it was understandable that on the occasion we read about in Luke's gospel, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them also how to pray. In response, he introduced them to what we now call the Lord's Prayer, but he also told them not to babble away like the pagans (at least according to Matthew's account) and that when they pray they should go into their rooms and shut the door. In other words, there were times when they could pray together using the prayer he taught them as a model, but other times when they needed to be alone in the silence of their own hearts or what St. Augustine called our innermost sanctuary.
There are no prayer experts. Most of the great saints of the past, including some of more recent times like Mother Theresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke or wrote of the difficulties they had in praying. And that, I think, is true for all of us.. So we continually need to ask, "Lord, teach us to pray," and we need to pause every so often to reflect on what it is we are doing when we pray. Are we just uttering words, wondering whether they are simply hitting the ceiling and bouncing back? Is God really listening? Are we praying in order to break the silence as we sit together, or impress others with our piety, or knowledge? What are we trying to do? Are we bluffing ourselves and others? Are our prayers for real? Have we simply given up in despair and decided praying is not for me? "Lord teach us to pray."
The Lord's Prayer itself can easily become a meaningless routine, something we simply say because it is our custom to do so. It is in the liturgy and regularly comes at a certain point. But it is actually a model that helps us focus together before God on all the basic needs of life, what is fundamentally important: daily bread, forgiveness of sins, courage and freedom from fear in times of testing, deliverance from evil. Each of these can and should make us pause to reflect on our lives in relation to God and others, and so pray more meaningfully. Jesus' words help us to focus, and make us more aware of our own real needs and those of others in need. So too does our listening to the gospel as we read Scripture together. For prayer is a response to God's love and human need. Listening for that Word is essential if we are to pray meaningfully. Unless we listen we cannot pray, for all we will do is utter words, maybe eloquent ones, but not prayerful ones. Meditation and reflection is the basis for prayer. But this also requires entering the silence, moving beyond meditation to where listening leads us, to contemplation in which we are simply at home in the presence of God. Where words become unnecessary.
So Jesus not only taught his disciples to pray, but also by example, taught them to take time, and go somewhere to be alone, to "be still and know God." Contemplation takes us beyond meditation and prayerful words into the silence of God. This is not a replacement for prayer but a way of encountering and experiencing God's gift of love and grace beyond words, in the very depths of our being, it is at the heart of our a journey into the mystery of God.
I am by no means an expert on contemplation, nor a great practitioner, but like those who came to Volmoed last weekend I recognise its importance in our world of busyness, electronic devices, and noise. To live and work in the world, to be busy people engaged daily in actions of one kind or another, eventually wears us down and undermines whatever spirituality may be left in our parched souls. As Thomas Merton so eloquently taught, action needs contemplation, just as contemplation should lead to action. The two belong together.
So for the next five minutes we are going to journey into silence. It won't necessarily be easy because when we enter into silence our mind begins to take over and all kinds of thoughts buzz around in our heads. That is quite natural, so there is no need to fight it. Just allow them to buzz off into the distance as you focus on the words "Be still and know that I am God." Its like trying to fall asleep. Your mind with its racing confusions of thoughs has to be emptied bit by bit. "Be still and simply know who are in the presence of the One in whom you have your being. "Be still and know that I am God" is the mantra that leads us into the silence of contemplation. Don't try and formulate a prayer, don't plan anything, don't try and resolve all the problems of the world, just be still and know you are embraced by God. The truth is, in God's presence you don't have to impress anyone, you can simply be your "self."
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 18 June 2015