Carl McColman: Simplicity and Silence


This message came to me the other day.

Hi Carl. Love reading your blogs. From one who is a struggling contemplative can you tell me what form of contemplative prayer you do and why? Also can one do more than one form of contemplative prayer? ie, will one complement the other?

Two questions here. First, what does my own daily practice look like? And secondly, what do I think about using more than one method of contemplative practice?

First, about what I do. I'm assuming you simply want to know my practice of intentional silence, so I'm not going to go into my practice of lectio divina or the recitation of the daily office. Suffice to say that I think any contemplative practice needs to be embedded in the prayer and wisdom of a faith tradition. So it is good for a practice of Christian contemplation to be embedded in lectio and the office as a way of anchoring both identity and fidelity within this particular tradition. It's similar to how someone who has taken refuge in the dharma will not only meditate, but also chant Buddhist chants or study the dharma. Silent prayer teaches us mental clarity, while "wordy prayer" like the daily office or lectio divinahelp us to structure our thoughts in loving and faithful ways. Both are essential!

Now, as for my silent practice: When I enter into silence, I simply rest my attention on my breath; when my thoughts wander, I seek as silently and wordlessly as possible to return my attention to my breath; no judgment, no self-recrimination, simply return the awareness. Why the breath? Well, the words for "breath" and "spirit" are the same in Hebrew and Greek (ruach and pneuma), so I consider attention to my breath as a gift I give to the "Breath of God," i.e., the Holy Spirit. My practice is very similar to what in the Buddhist tradition is called shamatha, or "calm abiding" - a contemplative practice intended to foster inner silence and relaxed attentiveness. But of course, I practice as a Christian, so I would call this "Christian shamatha." While the method itself is simply shamatha, my intention is grounded in my faith as a Christian: I seek not only "calm abiding," but also fidelity to the contemplative sense found especially in the Psalms, of "being still and knowing" that God is God (Psalm 46:10), of "waiting in silence" for God (Psalm 62:1) and the recognition that "silence is praise" (Psalm 65:1 translated literally). Incidentally, before entering the silence I begin with a simple chant from the Psalms (the same verse commended by John Cassian): "O God, come to my assistance, O lord, make haste to help me" and then the "Glory be." I finish with the prayer of Julian of Norwich: "God, of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me. I may ask nothing less that is fully to your worship, and if I do ask anything less, ever shall I be in want. Only in you I have all."

Now, in the past I have worked with other methods of remaining attentive in silence, such as centering prayer (attention placed on a single prayer word) and the prayer of the heart (attention placed on the Jesus Prayer). I think any of these methods of contemplative practice can be a beautiful and faithful way to pray. But - and now I'm moving to the second part of your question - I would question the usefulness of trying to mix different methods. All I can write about is my experience, so your mileage may vary - but I have found that when I wander back and forth between different methods of silent prayer, I tend to be more distracted. I think this can be a defense mechanism that my discursive mind uses to subtly remain in control. If I'm busy "deciding" what "method" to use, then my thinking-brain is hard at work: and defended against the vast, uncontrollable presence of God who comes to us in silence. I've tried shamatha in the morning and the Jesus prayer at night, but then I find myself bouncing back and forth between the two every time I enter silence, no matter what time of day it is! It's like trying to fight a fire with both a hose and an extinguisher. You've got two great tools, either one will do the  trick. But if you're busy fiddling with both and can't decide which one is the best one to use at any one point, well, the flames just keep growing. Better to pick one tool and just get on with fighting the fire. I think contemplative practice works the same way: the "fire," of course, is the unruly, distracted mind, which seeks to noisy up silence with the chatter of inane thoughts. We fight the blaze of our discursive minds with the soothing waters of a prayer word, or the Jesus prayer, or simply resting in our breath. Each one is wonderful. But pick one and stick with it! That's my suggestion, at any event.

I think this is a great argument for having a spiritual director/companion/soul friend. Having someone to regularly discuss the depth and quality of you attention to silence is such a help. To use this question as an example: say you've been practicing centering prayer for the past year or so and you feel like you've hit a wall spiritually. Discuss that with your spiritual companion. Decide collaboratively if you might want to change to a different practice, such as the Jesus prayer, or the John Main "maranatha" method, or something as wordless as what I do. Or, perhaps, you need to stick with centering prayer and explore how to relax into deeper silence even in the face of the "wall." You see, each one of us is a unique expression of God's love, so there really is no one "right" way to pray. But having a spiritual companion can help to keep your focus where it belongs: not on what method or methods you are using, but on the heart of Divine Love that you wordlessly encounter in the beauty of prayerful silence.

So those are my thoughts, and again, I must stress, your mileage may vary. But if someone came to me in spiritual direction and mentioned they were working with multiple practices, I'd encourage them to settle on the one they find to be the most beautiful or encouraging, and stick with that, in a spirit of stability and perseverance. I suspect that for most people, this kind of simplicity of practice would be a help in settling into ever deeper encounters with silence.

Taken with permission from Carl's blog.