Returning to Silence, with Caution

My doctoral dissertation was about using silence as a contemplative practice in communal worship. I believe contemplative practices can bless those who use them and aid in communal spiritual growth. I believe deeply in the Scriptural phrase, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)

Eight years ago I began using silence in an apophatic manner. Apophatic means to seek to empty oneself of any thoughts. The manner of prayer that I was taught was seeking silence by the use of a single word. I had many “experiences” in using this form of prayer. Then the deception came. I hit a very low place in my life four years ago. I thought the pray of silence would help me. I would spend up to an hour a day seeking God in the silence. The spirit that showed up was not the spirit of God. I begin listening to the voice in the silence and it had a very destructive influence in my life. I have become very cautious of following an apophatic path.

Now, before I go further, I need to state that my error was a lack of discernment, being in a state of total desolation without realizing it, lack of a spiritual director, and very poor training in the use of the apophatic method. I am not using these as excuses, but simply as part of my understanding through a reflection of what happened in my life.

I recently have been studying the works of John Main and others who promote the apophatic method of prayer as a means of being faithful. I have no doubt of the sincerity and devotion to our Lord that John Main had in this life. I find his numerous works helpful in many ways. However, there is one aspect of the apophatic method used by John Main that I approach with caution and a bit of concern. John Main promotes the use of a mantra in apophatic prayer.

John Main became an active contemplative in the latter part of his life. Some of his spiritual education was in Buddhist meditation. The more I read of his works the more I am convinced that this training had a dynamic effect on his approach to Christian prayer. I feel certain that John Main was solid enough in his theological grounding that the concept of a mantra was in no way a movement away from orthodoxy. People who are not so grounded, or in a situation that they are not focused enough in the practice of discernment that this methodology can be deceptive.

There is no magic in a mantra. Using a prayer phrase or word as a prayer in silence is not about the phrase or word but is about our faithfulness in attitude and action during the prayer that is beneficial. It is about the faithfulness of being with God. These words or phrases of prayer can enrich our spiritual life however the intent and desire should be carefully discerned.

I believe as John Main believed, “The ultimate end of meditation is communion.”[1] “Meditation is growth and transcendence[2],” if used correctly. Unlike John Main, I have come to believe through experience that method should not precede discernment, intent, and desire.

Semantics defines the metaphor and metaphors have the ability to guide or deceive. For me, the use of the word mantra in Christian spiritual direction has too much baggage as a guide, a metaphor for prayer. Instead of using a “mantra,” use a prayer phrase or carefully chosen word prayer appropriate for the circumstances or situations.

John Main did bring to my attention the manner that Jesus used an apophatic prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. In Mark 14:39 we find, “He (Jesus) returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

 Once more he went away and prayed the same thing.” (Mk. 14:37-39 NIV) Also in Matthew 26:44, “When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.” (Matt. 26:43-44 NIV)

What is the same prayer Jesus prayed? “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”(Mk. 14:36 NIV)

In a time of stress and true anxiety about what was to come, Jesus repeated this prayer. After a time of discernment and thought, I carefully used this prayer for a twenty-minute period of apophatic prayer. I am glad I did. I did not hear a voice, but I did feel a sense of peace and comfort that I have come to know as a gift of consolation from God. I will continue to use this prayer, and other phrase prayers from Scripture in a careful discerning manner. I will recommend this to those whom I guide in spiritual direction as well.

[1] Main, John, The Way of Unknowing, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1988, 2011. p.19

[2] Ibid. p.22