Prayer Can Be ... Silent

Morning light.

At the end of the weekly lectio that I record each week for the Cup of Sunday Quiet, I usually include a few moments to sit in silent acknowledgment of what that time has held. 

God is present. We are present.

And we just hold the acknowledgment of that for a few silent seconds.

This is prayer, too. 

In fact, these “prayers of the silences” are an often companion in the journey of my life with God right now. God is here, but we aren’t communicating in conscious, cognitive ways like I’ve been used to doing. 

It’s a strange and difficult change, but it is also okay. I sit in the silence, staring off into space, and I know God is here, just as much as I am. No effort to put things into words is needed. Just being aware of our presence in the same space is enough. It is prayer, too.

Do you ever experience these prayers of the silences?

Into This Dark Night: The Gift of Enkindled Love


We’ve mentioned many times in this series that something is happening in this dark night that we cannot see or comprehend.

We’ve said God is infusing and strengthening us at the level of the spirit. We’ve said that faithfulness to this dark night strengthens us in virtue and grows us in love. We’ve said that the invitation in this season is an invitation to simply sit before God in a season of contemplation without seeking words or thoughts or impulses or images.

John of the Cross says the spirit feasts in this season while the senses lay void and inactive.

But at the beginning of this season, we are so unaware of the spirit’s activity inside of us that we can’t see this feast is happening. Our spirits are yet weak in us. We cannot perceive all that is happening underneath the surface.

He writes:

“At first, focused as she is on the absence of familiar sweetness, the soul may not notice the spiritual delight. This is because the exchange is still strange to her. Her tastes are accustomed to those old sensory pleasures, and she remains on the lookout for them. The spiritual palate has not yet been purified and attuned to such subtle delight.”

It’s such a subtle sweetness. It’s beyond what we have known and seen. 

And yet we will grow in our capacity to notice and be changed by it. Because eventually, he says, love is enkindled in the soul. 

He writes:

“And yet, at times, she will begin to feel a certain yearning for God … She does not know or understand where such love and longing come from.

… She finds herself madly in love, without knowing why. At times, the fire of love burns so hot in the spirit and the soul’s longing mounts to such a passion that she feels as if her very bones were drying up in this thirst. Her nature seems to be shriveling, her natural powers fading, their warmth and strength wiped out by the magnitude of this thirsty love. This thirst is a living thing.”

The great and overwhelming gift on the other end of the night of the senses is a fiery, burning love for God that consumes us.

It seems impossible such a love could exist — much less thrive — when we enter and sit in this night. Everything is dark. We feel nothing. We understand nothing. It feels lonely and barren here. 

But know this:

God is enkindling your spirit with love in this dark night, and eventually you will burn bright again — brighter than you’ve ever known or burned before.

Into This Dark Night: Another Way Contemplation Can Look

Julian of Norwich. She inspires me.

For a long time, before I ever experienced contemplation as St. John of the Cross really meant it — as a “loving attentiveness to God” — I had heard contemplation described that way and never really understood it. It seemed strange to me. What did it mean to “just be” before God? What did it mean to put ourselves before God without any thought or image at all? 

Truthfully, it sounded odd. 

And then when I learned of the two Greek words used to describe two diverging ways to experience God in prayer — kataphatic and apophatic — the type of contemplation described by St. John of the Cross seemed even more foreign to me. 

Kataphatic prayer makes use of words and images.

The kind of imaginative prayer described by St. Ignatius of Loyola that I mentioned in a previous post is this kind of prayer. In this kind of prayer, we hold images in our minds and experience ongoing conversations with God. We’re conscious of our thoughts in prayer, and we’re able to “hear” God’s words in response to us interiorly. 

Apophatic prayer, in contrast, is wordless and formless.

It’s an experience of prayer in which the soul acknowledges that God cannot ever be fully held in the mind and actually transcends all images — and therefore the soul lets go of any impulse to relate to God in these ways. This kind of prayer is often connected to relating to God in “a cloud of unknowing” or “darkness” or “nakedness of being.” 

The first time I heard these two terms used to describe the two major categories of prayer, I had an immediate aversion to the description of apophatic prayer. I had been living in a long season of consolation where the imaginative life of prayer had become my regular means of connecting to God, and especially Jesus. My prayer life, experienced in this way, was very active and incredibly dear to me. And this way of prayer had born much fruit in my life. Love for Jesus had erupted in me, and I was irrevocably changed. 

Why would I ever want to give that up? 

Weren’t the experiences I had with Jesus in prayer more beloved and preferable — even to God — than an experience of darkness and nothingness? 

Who would want to experience that?

(I mean, really.)

So I continued on my merry way, relishing the images and word-filled conversations I had with Jesus on a regular basis, continuing to fall more and more in love with God.

Until a little over three years ago. 

One day I sat at my desk, opened the Scriptures before me, and couldn’t taste words. They didn’t seem enough. They couldn’t hold God.

I went to pray and felt an immediate aversion to the images I’d been holding in my life of prayer with God. God was so much more than any image. God was

On that first day, I sat at my desk with my eyes closed and just let myself be in the presence of God. God was this massive greatness, creating everything and upholding everything, far beyond what I could imagine or understand … and I was grateful for that.

I just wanted to be with God without having to understand God.

And so each day in that season, I came and sat with the “cloud of unknowing” that was God beyond my concepts of God. And it was truly enough — more than enough, really.

Into This Dark Night: One Way Contemplation Can Look

A rainy night.

When I first experienced the kind of contemplation John of the Cross talks about, I didn’t know that’s what it was. In fact, it was only in hindsight — much, much later — that I realized what I’d endured was a night of the senses in the dark night of the soul. 

All I knew at the time was that completely new revelations about myself were opening up all over the place, and all of those self-revelations caused me to shut down completely. 

I was 19. And I didn’t know which way was up anymore.

I’d grown up in the church and had a relationship with God the whole of my life. It was a meaningful relationship, too — one that guided my life. As I matured in age, I got in involved in the usual things: youth group, youth choir, discipleship groups, Bible studies, and eventually I sang on the youth worship team and discipled girls who were younger than me. I read my Bible frequently and kept a faithful prayer journal. I went to a Christian college. I dated — and then married — a Christian boy.

But then two things happened.

I read a book that, for whatever reason, made me connect with a truth in my heart that I’d never fully acknowledged before: I didn’t understand grace or my need for Jesus. And second, I enrolled myself in therapy.

Through therapy, I began to see how much of my whole existence was spent doing, doing, doing, and how at the root of all that doing was a life-arresting belief that I needed to live that way in order to survive and find love and acceptance.

It was a freefall moment for me, looking around at my entire reality and finding it all suspect. What I thought were my motivations were not my motivations at all. I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know my relation to the world around me. And I didn’t know where God fit into all of it, either.

And so I stopped. 

No leadership or discipleship activities. Very rare church attendance. My prayer journal languished, unattended, by my bedside. 

I did nothing. I just sat in the dark.

For two long years.

Those two years weren’t spent in what you’d call a “loving attentiveness toward God,” by any means. It felt more like a challenge. I was sitting down on the floor of my life, challenging God to prove that he loved me in a way that had nothing to do with all those things I’d been doing, doing, doing to earn that love. Somehow, he loved me beyond all that, but that didn’t make sense to me. And so I sat down and asked him to teach me. And I refused to get up until he did.

This was certainly more rebellious in spirit than the “loving attentiveness” St. John of the Cross encourages during such a season. And it seemed, at least from my vantage point, triggered completely by me. I’d had the self-revelations. I’d enrolled in therapy. I’d decided to sit down on the floor of my life and do nothing. 

But looking back, I eventually came to see that it was, indeed, a night of the senses initiated by God.

And it was, indeed, contemplation — albeit a very rudimentary version of it.

Because while I was sitting there doing nothing for those two long years, the root of my whole being was intently trained on God. I just kept beating against him while I sat there, asking him to give me the truth, knowledge, awareness, belief I needed to learn.

I knew I couldn’t learn it for myself. I had no idea what the learning even was or meant. I was in the dark, but I was willing to sit there and let him work whatever needed to be worked in my soul for as long as it needed to take.

And even though I thought at the time that it was happening because I’d initiated all that “doing nothing-ness,” I know now it was initiated by God. The timing for those self-revelations was ripe. My heart was ready for true awareness and honesty. It was time for me to grow up in love and truth and God.

And so God clicked it all in motion.

And I responded, and said yes.

Into This Dark Night: Existing in Contemplation

Sun pushes through.

I mentioned in the last post in this series that “doing nothing” and “just being” in the dark night of the senses becomes a form of spiritual discipline in this season, and today I’d like to talk about what that means. 

Here’s how St. John of the Cross describes the intended activity of this portion of the dark night: 

“The soul must content herself with a loving attentiveness toward God, without agitation, without effort, without the desire to taste or feel him. These urges only disquiet and distract the soul from the peaceful quietude and sweet ease inherent in the gift of contemplation being offered.”

A loving attentiveness toward God. I just love that description, don’t you? This is the soul’s only necessary activity during this time. 

John of the Cross calls this practice of applying simple, unencumbered, loving attentiveness toward God contemplation. That’s a mouthful of a concept, and it is one that has carried a couple different connotations throughout the centuries for different spiritual writers. 

For some spiritual writers, such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, contemplation referred to the use of imagination in prayer — a kind of contemplation that sat with scenes from the Scriptures or scenes given to the soul by God and noticed the details of those scenes. This kind of “praying with the imagination” became, for St. Ignatius, one way for the soul to reflect upon its posture and relation to God, which then became a gateway to conversation with God.

For another group of spiritual writers, contemplation has referred to a kind of intense, singular study of an object in order to notice — really notice — it. A common example here would be the contemplation of a single flower, staring at it for a long period of time to notice all of its intricacies and, through such intense noticing, be led into spiritual experience. The perspective regarding this type of contemplation is that by studying a single object with such continuity and faithfulness, we deepen our ability to truly see.

John of the Cross meant something quite different by the word contemplation. For him, contemplation meant being present to God without thought, study, activity, or imagination. Simply being before God.

Have you ever experienced this kind of contemplative prayer before?

Into This Dark Night: Moving Toward Pure Encounter

Late afternoon shadows.

I’m still sitting with how strange it is, I’m sure, for you to hear St. John of the Cross prescribe inactivity during the dark night of the senses.

Even if we don’t feel it, wouldn’t it be a good thing to be faithful to the various spiritual disciplines, like reading the Scriptures, prayer, fellowship, meditation, fasting, worship? Why stop those things? What harm — rather than good — could they really do? They’re good things, aren’t they? The church has been practicing them for centuries upon centuries, encouraging us toward the goodness they offer the soul.

It’s true. The spiritual disciplines are good and effectual for us and our growth. And there are certainly times when faithfulness to God through spiritual activity — even when we don’t want to do it or seem to gain nothing from it — is warranted. 

But in this particular season, when God specifically seeks to wean our dependence on our senses and to grow us up at the level of the spirit, those activities actually hinder the work intended for this time. 

Here’s how the saint puts it:

“It would be as if a painter were composing a portrait and the model kept shifting because she felt like she had to be doing something! She would be disturbing the master’s work, preventing him from accomplishing his masterpiece. What the soul really wants is to abide in inner peace and ease. Any activity, preference, or notion she might feel inclined toward will only distract her, intensifying her awareness of sensory emptiness.”

This goes back to what we learned earlier about the night of the senses being aimed toward removing our dependence on our senses. The more aware we are of our activity, or of the felt effects of our activity, the more something serves as an intermediary between us and God. Something is between us — either the activities we do or our noticing the effect of those activities on us. 

In the night of the senses, God is moving us toward pure encounter.

Here, he is teaching us how to exist with nothing standing between us and himself. Spirit to spirit. Pure encounter.

In a way, this “doing nothing” and “just being” takes its own form as a spiritual discipline during this season. Tomorrow, we’ll learn what it looks like to exist in this way before God. 

Enter a Moment of Silence


I am not going to say many words today. 

Instead, I invite you into silence. A moment of silence. Close your eyes and connect your being with the infinite being of God. Allow yourself to be in the presence of God’s infinity. No words are necessary. 

Can you be in a moment of silence today?

Consider the Flowers

Rock garden.

As you are sitting on that large and sturdy rock from yesterday’s meditation, I want to invite you to notice the small flowers springing up from the ground at the base of the rock. 

Can you see them?

Take a moment to really look at those flowers. What colors are they? Are there different kinds? What are their petals like? What about their centers? What are their stems like? What do you notice about the soil they grow from?

Sit with the image for a few moments and really notice the flowers growing below you. Then consider Jesus’ words: 

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin.

— Matthew 6:28

The flowers are quite beautiful, aren’t they? And they are beautiful simply doing what they do: growing from the ground, being gorgeous and worthy of our care and admiration without even trying. 

You are beautiful that way too. 

Can you allow yourself to receive that same care and admiration from God as you sit upon that rock, simply for existing and being who you are? 

Of Stars and Wildernesses

As an intern spiritual director, I have a supervisor I visit once a month. She is there to provide support for me in my work with individuals on their spiritual journeys, and she is truly a gift from God. 

Usually during our sessions together, we talk about my growing edges as a director, the places where I stumble or falter when working with others and the places I’m finding my stride. But this particular time, we ended up just talking about me. Not me in the role of director, but me as Christianne.

I found myself telling her about my struggles through the dying process, and specifically my struggle to feel surrounded and loved by God and others. I told her I feel alone and that I wished there were more people I could look to for guidance on how to do this. I told her that I feel the need to be strong in all my respective spheres of life, and I shared examples of how that shows up in my life right now. I told her that this need to be strong and have something to offer feels particularly pronounced for me right now.

Read More

What Is Contemplative Prayer?

I plan to share some of my ongoing experiences with contemplative prayer on my Interiorities page, and it is a type of prayer that I have practiced for close to 10 years with great joy and fruitfulness. In fact, I would venture to say that contemplative prayer has been the single most transformative element of my spiritual journey in the past decade. I would not be the person I am today without the work of contemplative prayer in my life.

Contemplative prayer has deep roots in our Christian heritage and tradition, but it is not commonly known or practiced today in contemporary circles. I find, therefore, that explaining contemplative prayer is not always easy; lack of familiarity with the phrase and with the practice evokes confusion, insecurity, and sometimes even concern. This is one reason I share my own experiences with prayer on this website: so that by seeing one pilgrim’s journey deeper into prayer, the prayer lives of others can perhaps also be helped along.

I will share more about the practice of contemplative prayer as we go along, but for now it might be most helpful to begin by way of analogy. And in that case, the most helpful analogy I can offer is the following: Contemplative prayer is like my cat Diva.


Read More