Prayer born from silence
Cardinal Robert Sarah is a Guinean prelate of the Catholic Church and since 2010 is the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He is known as a man of deep prayer and wrote a book titled The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. He explores how silence can help in the modern world, so inundated by distraction and noise. When the Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about prayer, it also mentions silence:
“Vocal prayer is an essential element of the Christian life. To his disciples, drawn by their Master's silent prayer, Jesus teaches a vocal prayer, the Our Father. He not only prayed aloud the liturgical prayers of the synagogue but, as the Gospels show, he raised his voice to express his personal prayer, from exultant blessing of the Father to the agony of Gesthemane.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2701)
It is intriguing that the disciples are drawn to Jesus, first because of his silent prayer. It is only afterwards that he teaches them the Our Father. Maybe we should conclude that the Our Father came from his silence.
1. Drawn to Jesus
The Gospels give witness to people flocking around Jesus. They wanted to hear him preach. They wanted him to lay his hands on their sick and cure them. They wanted to touch him. They wanted to see him. The disciples were drawn to him also because of his silence.
They had seen the miracles that the crowds witnessed. They had heard and even repeated his preaching. They knew his doctrine. They knew something was different about him. They felt the attraction that the crowds felt. But there was something more. It was this “something more” that had inspired them to leave their nets, their tax collector’s booth or their family to come and follow Jesus.
By spending their days and their nights by his side, they slowly understood what the “something more” was. He teaches with authority, “not like the scribes and Pharisees.” (cf. Mt. 7:29) This is a beginning of the “something more,” but does not grasp all of it.
At night, yes at night! There is something different about him. They are worn out and flop down on a bit of ground wherever they are staying and quickly drop off to sleep. But they have witnessed that he does something else. He goes off to pray. They are too exhausted to keep their eyes open, but he is strong enough to pray through the night. His experience of prayer is fascinating to all of them. They see his prayer in silence and know that he is not merely repeating the prayers they all learned at the synagogues while growing up.
2. Drawn to prayer
They are attracted to him in silence. He is not reciting psalms loudly or railing against the evils of society. He is speaking with God the Father, communing with him. The disciples could have gone elsewhere to look for a social activist. How many places could they expect to find a man of God? In this case, he is actually a God-man, but we should not expect them to know this.
What did his silent prayer bring about in the soul of Jesus? We can imagine that he was peaceful. I imagine him like the water of the ocean, several feet below the surface. Though there may be storms up above, here things are peaceful, calm and constant. Perhaps this is what attracted the disciples of Christ.
For most of us who try to pray, we run into difficulties with enough frequency to doubt our own capability. If we keep trying, eventually we will go deeper into a spirit of silence.
3. Drawn to silence
They knew that they did not know how to pray. They could repeat formulas, but they did not feel like they had a deep contact with God. Seeing him pray in silence nudged them to try more silence themselves. Perhaps, during the years of public ministry, this happened less. It was sufficient to be with Jesus. It was “adoration” every day, quite naturally and spontaneously. But once he rose to Heaven and left them behind, their prayer became more central to their spiritual lives. Now, they would have to seek a real contact with God the Father, with Jesus, and with the new-found friend of the Holy Spirit.
Men and women of deep prayer are also men and women of silence. Their time spent in study and reflection helps to prepare them for their moments of encounter with God.
It is good to measure your own attraction to silence, as silence can be a good indicator of how present God’s work is in your soul. Prayer is not about repeating formulas, but about entering into communion with God.
Questions for reflection
1. How are your daily prayers? Could you benefit from a dose of silence?
2. How do you imagine that Jesus lived his silence?
3. Does silence help you to concentrate when you are praying?