Somehow looking back on my spiritual life, which began a good number of years before Vatican II, I realise that my life of prayer never came easy. I read many books on prayer and I always felt dissatisfied with what I read – dissatisfied because, for the most part, the description of the deeper prayer life seemed as though it was only accessible for the fortunate few. Thus, my own prayer life came across more as a litany of failure than somehow attaining some mystical heights. No one during my years of formation spoke in any accessible way about their own way of prayer – no one during or after the formation years taught me how to pray (they talked to me about various methods) and thus I felt as though I was left to flounder with my humble and sparse attempts to be in union with God. Yes, I struggled to meditate even though for more than 30 years I try to spend an hour a day in prayer (at two distinct moments of the day). But, yes in my prayer life there was always a sense of dissatisfaction and even a sense of culpability for I keenly felt the poverty of my humble attempts to be a person of prayer.
Fortunately, through reading many spiritual authors over the years I have been amazed by the constant theme of silence and solitude that runs through their work (Anthony de Mello, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Michel Hubaut, John Main and indeed many others). I began to see prayer as something much more relational where words were not really necessary for such authors stressed the great need for silence. Such silence allows me to be present to the Lord – present to myself and hopefully present to the Spirit. Words are not necessary at all – Somehow, I don’t even need to praise God, or ask him for anything just to allow myself to be enfolded by his love in the moments of silence that I strive to live each day. As someone once said, “We do not go to meditation in order to petition, to praise, and to repent – we go to be emptied so that we might be filled with his love.”
For centuries, many spiritual writers have been saying the same thing. St John of the Cross, the great medieval mystic, says, “The Eternal Father spoke only one word, His Son. He spoke that word eternally in an eternal silence. It is in silence that the soul is heard…. our greatest need is to keep silence before God, for the only language he understands is the silent language of love. Lord, make my prayer silent so that it becomes an leap towards you. May your silence descend into the depths of my being and may it return to you in a homage of love.”
I begin to see silence as part and parcel of my spiritual journey, it’s part of our life of faith and spirituality. At times, there can be too many words in our celebrations, too much reflection. Even in our relationships with others there are also at times too many words and not enough listening. Silence is necessary if we are to hear the Lord gently speaking to us in the depth of our being. I believe that in simple silence, our prayer can become greater than the hymns we sing or the reflections we make. If we truly desire to live from the depths, then silence is indeed necessary for in silence we slowly begin to be in touch with what is happening deep within even in touch with our most hidden emotions. However, for that we need to dive deeply into the still waters of our soul.
For a good number of years now I have become aware that my life of faith is not merely based on dogma and doctrine. Spirituality thus becomes an adventure to allow the very life of God penetrate deep within us – yes, it is about his life – his life in us. This is what is important. It is a call to be filled with his life and his power to be able to follow his son and become a true disciple; it is a call to be in relationship with him and his gospel. If prayer is relational then it might help us really to look at the relationships we have, the friends we have, the way we are with people.
I believe that our own personal relationships will be reflected in our relationship with the Lord. If there is a degree of honesty and truly reaching out to the other in all that we do, then it will be reflected in our prayer life. If we have no real interest to cultivate our relationships; if our relations with others tend to be one sided, or always on our terms and if we really don’t invest time then such relationships cannot grow but will rather fade and die a natural death.
In a good relationship, there will always be a sense of gratitude and joy in the other’s presence and we also know that when we have a good friend we can accept to be challenged and given advice – for friendship has never been a mutual admiration society. Such friendship is God’s gift for each one of us and this is what our prayer life is all about – our relationship with the Lord will be the only real mirror to reflect our soul. Our relationship with the Lord, with his word – must be the basis of our missionary life, our prophetic life and indeed all our missionary undertakings.
Francis Barnes, M.Afr.
First General Assistant
(Petit Echo nr. 1078)