ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Prayer — Listen in Silence

(An excerpt from my unpublished memoir “Beliefs that Hurt — Faith that Heals”)

Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us — Richard Rohr

I am praying but in a very different time and place. Not talking now, but just listening for what I could not even anticipate or explain.

It all started when a physician told me, “You have cancer.” The diagnosis should not have come as such a surprise. The diagnostic indicators included rapidly rising PSA scores and finally a biopsy that revealed an aggressive form of prostate cancer.

Although a cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence, mortality is one of the first things that came to mind. What if the surgery is not successful?, I thought, and the certainties (illusions?) of my life go out the window. In blows a bunch of “what ifs.” A whirlwind of emotions thrust me into the land of panic and then depression.

The prayer takes place weeks after my diagnosis. I visit Wells Cathedral on a business trip to England in 2007. I find most cathedrals stifling and stuffy. However, the one in Wells is very feminine in its design. From the moment of one’s entry it wraps its arms around each person in a warm embrace. It is no coincidence then that the cathedral is called the “mother” church of the diocese. Gothic in architectural style, Wells has been called “unquestionably one of the most beautiful” and “most poetic” of English cathedrals.

I usually choose to visit a church when no one is present. The introvert in me loves solitude. As I sit alone in the vast space that day I am socked in a fog of confusion. I reflect on the significance of the newly diagnosed cancer. After several minutes on one of those uncomfortably hard church pews, out of the blue, I hear a soft voice in my head saying,

“When you pass through the waters I‘ll be with you.”

There it was, a voice! But who was doing the talking? Is it a passage from the bible I learned as a child? Is it some universal Presence? Am I just talking to myself? But wherever that voice originated comes from it sure gets my attention.

I feel a wave of comfort pass over and envelop me. It is if the “mother” church takes me in her arms and embraces me. I hear echoes of the English mystic, Julian of Norwich:

“All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well”.

Am I comforting myself with the thought of Presence or is there actually something addressing me?

Now 15 years later after successful prostate cancer surgery I have a new lease on life as my spiritual quest continues. I wake up most mornings at dawn. After a couple cups of coffee jolt me into consciousness, I meditate anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes.

My mission is to achieve silence and open myself to Transcendence.

I find silence in the gap between intruding thoughts of the past and interrupting musings about the future. I listen, but so far no voice is heard. Or so I thought for a long time. Then I remember the incident in the Wells Cathedral. What was that remembrance of the Scriptures “when you pass through the waters” if it was not Presence speaking to me? After the Scriptures were read in our Episcopal church the congregation would respond “The Word of God.” Maybe all the Scripture I memorized in my childhood was coming back to me as God’s voice.

There is more to meditation than us hearing messages from elsewhere.

In my psychologist practice I know about evidence-based interventions. If I do x with a patient (an insight or behavioral intervention), then the result is y (the lessening of anxiety). My meditation equation resulting in my “y” happens when I venture into my day with a calm and a centeredness that would not be there if I had not meditated. I carry a piece of that transcendence with me. As a result I can at times remain fully in the present most of the time. Maybe another manifestation of my ‘y’ is found in some deep healing going on in my unconscious mind.

Prayer has not always been about silence. In my early Tribe days it was about frenetic chatter directed at God. We told God about the people who needed to be saved (converted), the wounds and illnesses that required healing, and of course there was always a confession of our sins and the request for forgiveness. I once asked a priest what God would say to us about prayer. He quipped,

“Shut up and listen.”

When I first embarked on this unchartered inner journey with the help of silence, I was at a loss as to where I could find help. On the recommendation of a friend, a former Jesuit novice, I sought out a spiritual director. On my spiritual retreat I asked my spiritual director and psychologist Leo Rock, “What do I do in spiritual direction?”

Leo replied, “Nothing.”

That statement alone threw me for a loop. I was used to the “Who is going to do what by when” accountability of consulting. How could I measure progress without a project with measurable outcomes? Silence was uncomfortable and a threat. It did not give room for my ego, the enemy within, to move. And I could not control the unpredictability of what would come up through the silence. What Leo began to teach me was that silence is not vacant space waiting to be filled with content.

While on retreat I browsed through the library at the Novitiate and the book by Thomas Merton New Seeds of Contemplation jumped out at me. I have been reading that book for over three decades (that’s what Merton’s writing does to one). The gifts of contemplation seep into our inner being despite the fact that, according to Merton, they are “beyond our knowledge, beyond our own light, beyond systems, beyond explanations, beyond discourse, beyond dialogue, beyond our own self.”

I know that creativity emerges from what Thomas Keating, architect of Centering Prayer, calls “thunderous silence.” In this place of quiet rest, I have opportunity to hear the voice from deep within. Maybe my experience can morph into the lesson given by the ancient Hebrew priest Eli to the boy Samuel: “Go and lie down, and if He calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’.”

I started to listen.

Remaining silent in prayer is easier said than done. As any meditator will testify, silencing an over-active mind is an integral part of any practice. In my meditation experience I often have to focus on my breathing to settle down the barrel-full of hyperactive monkeys in my head. Or I have to disable my ego by telling it “You don’t have a problem to solve”. Some years ago I took a friend of mine to our local meditation group in Mexico. He had never been to such a gathering before. After our meditation I asked him how the experience was for him. He replied, “I prepared the outline for my university class for the next semester”

Before I am too quick to criticize my friend let me admit that I have used meditation time to write an entire blog in my mind. Talk about “Restless Mind Syndrome”! However, sometimes in rare moments my mind does quiet down and the line of sight to Presence becomes clearer.

My next stop is in nature.

Here I discover the infinite stand-in for Presence. Long ago I memorized a line from the Psalms that speak the possibility us hearing the voice of Presence: “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Again I become deeply relaxed and centered as I immerse myself in the sounds of the river running through our property, the wind in the Cottonwood trees, and the Ravens calling to each other in the early morning.

There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God.

My mother who died over 25 years ago is close by. And so are my ancestors.

Here is an exercise focusing on silence that I learned from Fr. Richard Rohr. I repeat this sequence several times during pre-dawn quiet.

Be still and know that I am God

Be still and know that I am

Be still and know

Be still

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Cedric Johnson, PhD

Retired Psychologist. Pilgrim searching for a heart based spirituality and avoiding head-based dogma. Writing when I’m inspired and when I’m not