On The Spaciousness and Silence that Characterize Deep Prayer

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One of the graces of deeper prayer, if we persevere through the years, is that the Lord turns us upward and outward. And, gradually, our prayer turns more toward God and is less anxious about our own aches and pains. It becomes enough to give them to God and trust in His providence. Gradually, we simply prefer to experience the Lord quietly, in increasingly wordless contemplation. God draws us to a kind of silence in prayer as we advance along its ways. But that silence is more than an absence of sound; it is a result of our being turned more toward God. An old monastic tale from, I know not where, says,

Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered. This would upset the disciples; but not the Abbot, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence. To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”

Yes, as prayer deepens and becomes more contemplative, the human person is turned more to God, and a kind of holy silence becomes private prayer’s more common pattern. This does not mean that nothing is happening; the soul has a communion with God that is deeper than words or images. It is heart speaking to heart (cor ad cor loquitur). This is a deep communion with God that results from our being turned outward again to God. And the gift of silence comes from resting in God, from being less focused on ourselves, and more and more on God. Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with (holy) fear and trembling stand, ponder nothing earthly minded… Yes, there is a time for intercessory prayer, but not now. Don’t just do something; stand there. Don’t rush to express; rest to experience. Be still, and know that He is God. An old spiritual says, Hush….Somebody’s callin’ my name. Yes, pray for and desire holy silence, praying beyond words and images. These are the beginnings of contemplative prayer.

St. Paul speaks of the unspeakable quality of deep prayer as well, though his experience likely goes beyond what we call contemplative prayer.

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. (2 Cor 12:2-4)

Yes, it is “unsayable,” and words fail. St. Augustine was said to remark of the Christian mysteries, If you don’t ask me, I know. If you ask me, I don’t know.

Another gift that is given to those who are experiencing deeper prayer is a sense of spaciousness and openness. As the soul is less turned inward and increasingly turned outward, it makes sense that one would experience a kind of spaciousness. Those who have attained deeper prayer often speak of this Scripture does as well. Consider some of the following passages:

  1. For the Lord has brought me out to a wide-open place. He rescued me because he was pleased with me. (Ps 18:19)
  2. I called on the LORD in distress: the LORD answered me, and set me in a large place. (Ps 118:5)
  3. The Lord brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me. (2 Sam 22:20)
  4. You have not handed me over to the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place. (Psalm 31:8)
  5. Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: you have enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy on me, and hear my prayer (Ps 4:1)
  6. And I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (Psalm 119:45)
  7. And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth (a Hebrew word which means latitude or width), saying, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” (Gen 26:22)

See how consistently this spaciousness is mentioned. As we are turned outward and upward to God, we soon enough experience the spaciousness, and latitude of knowing God. No longer pressed and confined by the experience of being turned inward (curvatus in se), the soul has room to breathe. Many people who begin to experience contemplative prayer, though not able to reduce the experience to words, express an experience of the spaciousness of God. But this spaciousness is more than a physical sense of space; it is a sense of openness, of lightness, of freedom from burden and from being pressed down; it is an experience of relief. But again, all who experience it agree; words cannot really express it well.

Yes, here too is a gift of deepening prayer to be sought: spaciousness, and that openness that comes from being turned outward and upward by God. An old Spiritual says, My God is so high, you can’t get over him, He’s so low, you can’t get under him, he so wide, you can’t get round him. You must come IN, by and through the Lamb.

Two gifts of the deeper prayer we call contemplative prayer, prayer that moves beyond words and images, beyond the self to God Himself.

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11 Replies to “On The Spaciousness and Silence that Characterize Deep Prayer”

  1. I started out using Buddhist sitting meditation 14 years ago. I found it empty. I returned to my Christian roots several years ago and now appreciate the discipline necessary for contemplative prayer. My usual routine is one hour of prayer in the morning using my meditation timer so I don’t lose track of time. It’s funny because if I change the length of my prayer time to thirty minutes, I can’t tell the difference between that amount of time and the full hour. It feels the same to me. I feel very grateful to be able to spend this time with God. I tell myself often that nobody can pray to God for me. Nobody can have my relationship with God for me. Spending this time with God is the most important thing I do everyday. Having a relationship with anyone requires spending time with them including God, even when you’re too busy.He is beyond anything I can think of or imagine. Thinking ABOUT God is not the same as BEING with God. I expand Psalm 46:10 to: “Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I AM. Be still and know. Be still. Be.

    This form of prayer has made me feel completely rooted in God. I cannot not pray every day, but it requires a lot of perseverance and commitment. I’ve found not too many people are willing to do it, but my rebuttal to that is that if I have time to watch TV or a movie, I have time to pray. It’s a matter of priorities.

    Thank you Msgr. Pope for your insight on contemplative prayer.

  2. Thank you, Monsignor Pope. Thomas Dubay also has great works on prayer, including Prayer Primer, Fire Within, and Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer.

  3. Thank you, Heidi. I have reached the point of silence following praise and petition, but so far it only seems to be silence. Your posting suggests how I can move from the individual silence into the enlarged space where God is, as you have shred. Many thanks. God Bless!

  4. Space is really the Immense Awesome Work of the Holy Trinity! Yes, Jesus was given space too… in almost every moment of His Life, Heaven and Earth….

    In a home, it must be a prayer room….

  5. I remember when I would pick my son up from school he would talk and talk and talk about his day and his teacher and his friends and then he would have a zillion questions… and I loved it! I remember those days as very very fond memories. Not to say there is not a place for quiet because God wants to tell us something too.

  6. God draws us to a kind of silence in prayer as we advance along its ways.

    “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”

    Thanks Monsignor Pope,

    But this from you is not a coincident!

    HUMBLY AND TO ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO NEVER GIVE UP NO MATTER WHAT!

    I HAVE JUST STARTED EXPERIENCING BOTH!

    AFTER TEN YEARS PRAYING CONSISTENTLY,DAILY AND PUNCTUALLY!

    THANKS TO ST.TERESA OF AVILLA .

    I KEEP REFRESHING MYSELF READING HER MOST PARTICULAR SENSITIVE AND ACCURATE SECTIONS REGARDING DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES WHILE PRAYING!

    IT’S A MUST FOR ALL OF US WHO LOVE PRAYING BUT TO PLEASE GOD NOT OURSELVES!

    WE MUST BE EXTREMELY PATIENT, AND GIVE HIM ROOM TO DO IT HIS OWN WAY, SIMPLY:

    YOUR WILL BE DONE!

    IT IS ALSO TRUE, THAT GOD NEVER TAKE SOMETHING WITHOUT GIVE SOMETHING ELSE FOR ALL THOSE WHO PERSEVERE IN LOVE

  7. Thank you, Monsignor Pope.

    I appreciate this post. I live in a rural area and there is silence all around me. Not until very recently did I begin to appreciate this. For years, I thought this was a terrible situation. No people, no noise, no interaction. I complained. Now gradually, I’m thinking that maybe God put me just where I’m supposed to be. I’ve begun to realize what a wonderful gift this is and that many people don’t have this luxury. They are bombarded by sound and can’t get rid of it. It must be so very difficult to pray. I think God has been patiently waiting for me to turn to Him in prayer and recently, I’ve been able to do just that. I have been given the great gift of external silence. You could almost say I have the equivalent of a hermitage. I have His creation all around me and I thank God for this gift and I thank you Monsignor for your postings each day that make me think and pray. Also, a Thank You to J. Horne above for suggesting Fr. Thomas Dubay’s books. I downloaded “Prayer Primer” for The Kindle app and I’m reading it now. It’s been a great help for this beginner.

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