Here’s a brief recap of what we’ve covered so far:
- The Spirit gives us a hunger and thirst for God; so we seek to draw near to him and desire communion with God through prayer.
- The weakness of our flesh and Satan act to deceive, discourage, and divert us can frustrate us in our pursuit.
- We can transform our prayer life from the casual and superficial to a deeper level by applying three key practices.
- The first key is to establish the discipline of prayer.
Today, we’ll look at the next step.
Key #2: Practice solitude.
Solitude is the state of being alone. At first glance, then, we might think of practicing solitude in prayer as praying by ourselves, with no one else around. But another way of describing solitude exposes a deeper meaning: to be with God alone. This means giving our whole self to God, with nothing else getting in the way. The first definition emphasizes physical separation, the second, a state of the soul.
One night during my college years, I went to visit my friend, Mary Beth. Mary Beth loved God and had a pure and gentle heart. Sitting on the floor and facing one another, our conversation came to a lull. If you’re an introvert, you probably can identify with the immediate discomfort of the situation. Our natural tendency is to jump to another subject or look away. In this case, we just sat looking at one other and, in that moment of exposure and potential embarrassment, we knew the acceptance and love of another person and, through the other, the love of God.
Nothing else in the world mattered. A quick word to break the silence would have ruined the moment. It was a profound experience of solitude.
Barriers to solitude
Most of us live in a world that is jam-packed with sensory input, noise, responsibilities, and activity. I’ve always had a very cerebral job that has taken my full attention. Moving from that state of mind to one of solitude in prayer has been like trying to stop a freight train on a dime. I would sit down to prayer with the best intention, often starting with a scripture reading. The next thing I knew, I was working out a problem from work. I’d let that thought go, only to move on to a conversation or thinking about an upcoming event. The whole prayer time would carry on this way and, when I finished, I felt frustrated and exhausted from the effort.
I came across one author’s suggestion to incorporate the distraction into my prayer. If it was a problem, I would ask God’s help to solve it. Recalling a verbal blunder might trigger a prayer of confession and asking God’s help to repair the damage I had done. This sort of worked, except I still spent the whole prayer time moving from one distracted thought to another. At least now, I could use it to bring God back into the experience.
Often, when my mind was too busy, I would just pray vocal prayers like the Rosary or read a Bible passage aloud.
Sometimes that was the best I could manage, even when I was alone in a room with no interruptions. The idea of praying always and in the middle of chaos was just wishful thinking.
Transitioning to solitude
Over the course of many years, my prayer changed. It became simpler and much quieter. While there were practical steps I took to improve my approach (and I’ll share these in just a bit), it most definitely was a work of the Holy Spirit. I would like to share three movements in my life that helped me make the transition.
First, God showed me my expectations for prayer were screwed up. I wanted to feel close to God. My task-oriented-self wanted to see results. I came to realize that my ways were not God’s ways. I was putting effort into how I prayed, but what was most important was that I just be with God. A result of letting go of the task-oriented behavior was an overall quieting and simplifying of the experience.
Second, Thomas Merton’s book, Contemplative Prayer, helped me readjust my understanding of prayer. I started to see prayer expressed through my awareness, gratitude, and obedience. I began to recognize God’s continual presence with me even when I was not consciously aware of that Presence.
Third, the struggles and trials I experienced in life had the effect of burning off some of my spiritual “rust” while the Spirit helped me grow in virtue. The effect on my soul carried over into my prayer life.
As time went on, the various methods of meditation I had used for years were actually becoming a distraction. Even using a word or phrase in centering prayer would seem like an interruption. My prayer experience was becoming more like looking into Mary Beth’s eyes, where any word would disturb the moment.
Recognizing that you can’t just repeat someone else’s experiences, what can you do to bring solitude into your prayer?
Readjust your attitude.
If you have had an expectation of a particular experience or emotional high during prayer, it’s time to let it go. Let God be God, and be content to receive whatever he gives you in prayer. Much of what we receive is not felt or thought of during the time of prayer but has an impact on us at a deeper level that becomes evident in our daily living.
Use exterior solitude to help your interior solitude.
Make sure where you pray is free of auditory, visual, and tactile distractions (i.e. an uncomfortable environment). Feel free to change your physical position to match the movement of prayer you’re experiencing in your heart. Stand with your arms raised to express joy and gratitude, kneel or even fall to a prone position to show adoration or contrition, and sit with your hands open to express interior openness. If you’re on a tight schedule, set a timer so you don’t have to keep checking the clock.
Use quieting exercises.
You may have heard of people meditating or practicing mindfulness by using relaxation exercises or mental imagery. For these people, the exercise becomes an end in itself. You can use similar techniques but with a different purpose. Trying to shut down your mind is like engaging in a wrestling match, and you usually lose. Rather than trying to overpower the distractions, we can redirect our mind to something much simpler and easier to let go. We first direct our minds to our breathing, surroundings, or a single word or phrase, and from there move on to other forms of prayer.
Breathing: Take your prayer position. Relax your body, beginning with the muscles in your face and move down through your shoulders, chest, arms, and legs. Observe your breathing. Close your eyes and establish a pattern of slow, deep, and even breathing. You can transition to meditative prayer, for example, by acknowledging God’s presence, and then pray something like, “Father, you are closer to me than the air I breathe. Make me more aware of you with every breath I take.”
Listening: Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. Let them penetrate your being. Continue until a mood of quiet sets in.
Chanting: Take a short phrase or refrain from Scripture or a hymn and chant the words slowly and repetitively until you experience a calmness and quiet.
Centering prayer: Quiet your mind and relax, perhaps using the breathing or listening methods above. Take up a sacred word or phrase (e.g. “Jesus,” “Savior of the world”) which you can say or repeat as a prayer and whenever you find yourself becoming distracted.
Keep a notepad or journal nearby.
As you pray, many distracting thoughts will come to mind. Some will be tasks you’ll want to remember later. Some will be situations or people you can lift up in petition or intercession. Some things will be insights or a subject for further meditation. When these arise, you can write them down and immediately forget about them until later. Sometimes, you can use the journal to organize your thoughts instead of trying to formulate everything in your mind. Some people like to write everything down, but I would be careful as that practice can become a distraction in itself. One word of caution. You can use your smart phone or tablet computer to write notes, but as we usually use these devices for other purposes, they can also act as distractions.
Keep your prayer simple.
Early in my devotional life, I had heard others speak of developing a structured devotional time. Following their advice, I would start with a prayer of offering, perform an examination of conscience and confess my sins, read a biblical passage, journal about the passage in my journal, pray for a list of concerns, and close with an Our Father. It felt productive, but for the time allowed, I had to keep moving along to get it all done. There was no time just to sit with God. While the Spirit might lead you to this highly structured style of prayer, be aware that it can also act as a barrier to solitude.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
This passage from Psalm 46:11 says it all. Learn to be still and just be aware that the Lord is God. It’s OK if you don’t say a single word. It’s also OK if you spend your prayer time praying the Rosary or the Divine Office. Let go of whatever comes between you and God. The spirit and attitude you bring to prayer are what matters.
Practicing solitude is crucial to going deeper in prayer, but it still leaves out a critical step. Next week, we’ll look at what could be the most important key to transforming your prayer life.
Three Keys to Transforming Your Prayer – Key #2 is the second in a three-part series on developing a consistent and transformative prayer life.