We like to have
silent prayer in church, but notice the astonishing miracle that happens every Sunday: when the leader says,
Amen, everyone is finished at the exact same time! No one is finished early, and no one rushes to finish up. That is because silent prayer is not the beginner’s slope. It takes much more concentration than most of us can muster. I am embarrassed to think about how often I have sat down to pray silently, began praying, then my thoughts wandered to preparations for a holiday, or grocery shopping, or home repairs, and then all of a sudden I realized that I was supposed to have been praying, so I say
Amen and count it all as prayer. It wasn’t prayer.
Meditation vs. Contemplation
We have the concept of meditation, which comes to us from outside of Christianity. Meditation consists of emptying the mind of all thought, but the Eastern Orthodox teaches against emptying the mind because of Luke 11:24-26:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says,I will return to my house from which I came.When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.
—Luke 11:24-26, NRSV
The danger of meditation—that is, having an empty head—is that it can be filled with anything that happens by, and that isn’t always something healthy.
The historic Christian practice is not meditation, but contemplation. We don’t differentiate between the two in common use, but technically speaking,
thinking about nothing, while
thinking about one thing. The idea is to fill the mind with prayerful thought to exclude all else. I tried this once at a clergy retreat. We were supposed to pray silently in a darkened chapel. I knelt and stared at the cross and concentrated only on the cross, excluding all other thought, thinking about what it meant at the crucifixion, what it meant at the resurrection, and what it means to everyone who has lived since. When the time was up, I was not ready and had to finish quickly. That was a very enlightening experience, in more ways than one.
The Eastern Orthodox take Paul’s admonition to pray at all times very seriously, so there is the discipline of the Jesus Prayer. It is taken from Jesus’ parable about the sinner and the Pharisee. The Pharisee looks up (the standard Jewish posture of prayer) and thanks God for what a wonderful person he is. The sinner can’t bear to look God in the eye, so he looks down and begs for God’s mercy.
Here is a way to use the Jesus Prayer as a a personal devotional discipline.