The Jesus Prayer and Silence

310px-Jesus_Sinai_IconMother Teresa was once asked by a reporter, “When you pray to God what do you say?” to which she responded, “I don’t say anything, I listen.” The reporter lost no time turning the question around and asked; “When you pray to God what does He say?” Mother Teresa matter-of-factly answered, “He doesn’t say anything, He listens.”[1] Mother Teresa’s experience of listening to God and Him listening back has a sure foundation in scripture. Two of the most prominent scriptural passages vividly portraying listening to God are the stories of Samuel who, as a young boy, heard the voice of God and Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb. First, the story about Samuel;

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. At that time Eli, who’s eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see, was laying down in his own place; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was laying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. And the Lord came and stood forth, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for they servant hears.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle.[2]

There are many important considerations from the story of Samuel’s listening. Samuel was removed from outward distractions, ready to receive whatever message God might send. Although the text says that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nevertheless, the Scriptures also conclude that Samuel was listening to the voice of God.

The story of Elijah, found in 1 Kings, teaches that listening to the voice of the Lord is how one is ushered into the presence of the Lord.

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?[3]

The New Revised Standard Translation renders, “a still small voice” as “the sound of sheer silence.” The Hebrew could also be translated as, “a sound of gentle stillness.”[4] It was not in the noise and power that the divine Presence was made real but rather in the silence of a “still small voice.” That quiet voice required the great prophet to listen and be quiet himself and only then did the divine question come, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Silence is a choice. We choose the things we want to do. These things, then, order and measure our lives. Someone said that Christians “order and measure” their lives from communion to communion. We might also say the Christians “order and measure” their lives from silence to silence.

Silence, at its best, is God-awareness. We quiet down our outer and inner lives, and listen to God speak. Someone said that when God speaks, His words are like the sound of a flutter of a bird’s wings. We need to be attentive if we are to hear anything. Outer silence is a choice. Outer silence calms the senses. By contrast, sensory overload and excitement can be addictive.

Inner silence can usually be achieved only by substituting one thought for another. Hence, the Jesus Prayer overrides our usual compulsive stream of consciousness about our own anxieties. Beginning with this form of prayer, then we might be led to deeper inner stillness, prayer without words. The caution here is that prayer without words is not heaviness, semi-sleep dullness. Rather, wordless prayer is alive, vigorous God-awareness.

Abba Pastor tells us that any trial that comes to us can by conquered by silence.

At the beginning of the Byzantine Liturgy, when the preliminary preparations are completed and all is now ready for the start of the Eucharist itself, the deacon turns to the priest and says, “it is time for the Lord to act.” Such exactly is the attitude of the worshipper in the Orthodox liturgy but also in the time of prayer.

COMING UP next: The Jesus Prayer: Who and When


[1] Reference unknown

[2] I Samuel 3:1-12

[3] I Kings 19:11-13

[4] George Arthur Buttrick, Editor, The Interpreters Bible. Abingdon Press: New York, New York. 1954. Volume 3, Page 163.

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Filed under Contemplative Prayer, The Jesus Prayer

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