My priest, Kenneth Swanson at St. David’s Episcopal Church, offers a course called “Spiritual Direction” in which one learns the purpose of prayer and how to pray. The course is not for the faint of heart. Participants meet twice a month for two hours from September to May. There is one hour of small group conversation followed by a one-hour lecture by Ken.
The “not for faint of heart” part is due to making a commitment to seek God in stillness for one hour each day….. while praying and recording your thoughts in a journal. The first class was September 25 and I would love to say I have nailed the assignment every day and I am now a prayer warrior and the Queen of Stillness.
I would love to say that….. but ….. I can’t.
There have been two large hurdles to meeting this commitment.
Hurdle #1: I have failed dismally on some days finding time to pray—-on those days, my prayer/journal time was reduced to my talking to God and listening for Him (sort of) while navigating the local highways at 6:30 in the morning on my way to work. I would have Part Two of my conversation and listening experience in the car on the way home at 5:30 in the evening. By the time I get home, the best prayer I could muster was “Thank You God I survived another day of greater Atlanta area traffic and a busy day at work”.
I do not think that is what Reverend Swanson had in mind when he said to spend time with God.
Hurdle #2: In our hour of quiet, we have topics we are to ask God about and then we are to record our thoughts in a journal. The tricky part is to spend the beginning of the hour by entering into stillness—to quiet our mind —to listen for His presence.
Before you write this off as wacky-mumbo-jumbo, this is not the same as the mind-emptying quests offered by transcendental meditation as their goal is to empty the mind of all content, all thoughts, all feelings. The goal is not to empty my mind but instead to fill it with the small still quiet voice of God.
Unfortunately, my mind is a dysfunctional random place—one second I am sitting quietly and thinking spiritual thoughts and the next second I am wondering if I need to buy a jar of peanut butter when I go to Kroger’s and am I out of milk and oops then back to God and then oops I remember I need to make a doctor’s appointment and ………….
And therein is the problem—trying to find stillness—trying to quiet my mind so I can listen.
Our society encourages us to fill our minds with clutter….. noise…. busyness. Even when we encounter moments where we could be still and quiet—we run from them. Everywhere I look—coffee shops, waiting rooms, parks..…people sit zombie-like staring at the cell phones in their hands….looking for something to fill their minds with…looking for something to read or do or see.
We don’t want still minds…we want minds that are distracted or entertained… silence scares us.
So, as I start this quest….. the question is…. Why struggle with trying to find stillness? What am I looking for? Why struggle with trying to learn how to pray?
I know lots of people who do not pray….. or, once upon a time they prayed and God did not give them what they wanted so they quit….. or, there is no God (certainly not one that cares about them) and I am wasting my time trying to hear a voice that does not exist….. and so forth.
I understand that as I have thought all those things at one point or another in my life. Where was God when I was trying for 6 years to save my marriage? Why didn’t He help with that? And where was God when my fiancée walked out on me? If God knows everything then He had a clue this would occur so forget God as He must be a cruel person. Or, these thoughts—God gave us free will and He just watches from a distance—detached and not caring.
The truth is (as I have come to realize) is that prayer is not a Santa Claus wish list; prayer is not the ultimate fortune cookie sign-up sheet; prayer is the most important tool in building a relationship with God…. A relationship based not on my needs or wants but based on trying to make my life…my will…. my wants…. mirror those of God’s.
That is a very scary statement as it means giving up control of my life—giving up being in the center of my universe. And I ask myself—am I really up for this? Am I really ready to make a quantum leap and make my faith walk the center of my life?
I truly do not know.
But this much I do know… that taking this small first step….. by finding stillness… I am learning to listen for His quiet voice—a voice that has the potential to change me—to take me places I would not go otherwise.
I now look for stillness of the mind while standing in a line at Panera Bread and while walking from my car to my desk and while sitting at stoplights. In doing so, I have become increasingly sensitive to how much negative clutter fills my mind such as the imaginary conversations where I tell someone off or point out their flaws. I have come face to face with the bitterness and resentments living in my heart—not just on the edges but in the core of my being.
There is no joy in harboring and focusing on resentments and being negative. And more than anything in my life, I want to find and cultivate joy. As Ken writes in his book, Uncommon Prayer, God intends for us to be people who live in the present, with joy…. that stillness and thus prayer will lead to a deep involvement with life.
And more than anything that is what I want now—a deep involvement with life—where I am connected to others and to God and to my purpose. I do not want to live a life where I am drifting and watching the players from the sidelines but a life where I am on the team and contributing to its success.
So, here’s to a new adventure—trying to find stillness in a world filled with noise—to entering into a life where prayer is the foundation of each and every day—and to being deeply involved with life and hopefully, making a difference in the lives I touch.
Listening for Stillness