Chapter 3. The Prayer of Silence
‘Your true praise consists in perfect silence,’ wrote the Hindu poet and teacher Dryanadev (A.D. 1290) in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. God, he said, does not put on any other ornament except silence.
The Prayer of Silence or Centering Prayer, as it is sometimes known, has in recent years become quite well known in the West. When I first went to India, however, like many Western Christians, I was used to verbal worship and prayer addressed to a transcendent God. India helped me to discover the prayer of silence to the God within.
Fr. Murray Rogers told me that he once took a Hindu friend to a church service. Afterwards, the Hindu friend said that he had appreciated the service, but added, ‘Tell me, Murray, when do you pray?’ There had been a series of readings and hymns and prayers, but not the silence that the Hindu friend had expected.
Speaking to God as to a friend through Jesus Christ is the pattern of prayer and worship in which I was brought up and which I continue to value. But with a close friend or a lover there can be times of companionable silence as well as of conversation. One rejoices to be in the other’s presence. In Hinduism, as we shall see, rather than sharing in congregational worship, a person goes to a temple just to see the deity for what is called darshan. It is enough just to be in the presence of the Divine. There is an old story of a French peasant who used to spend long hours in church. When asked what he did, he replied, ‘I look at him [the image of Christ] and he looks at me.’
The prayer of silence and of waiting or being in the presence of God is part of the Christian contemplative and mystical tradition, which in recent years has become better known. Note the rather different use of the word meditation in East and West. In the West, meditation, as for example taught by Ignatius Loyola (1495-1556) who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), although it was intended to lead from the head to the heart, was based on imaginative reading of scripture. It began with the use of the discursive intellect. Silent prayer -- which in the East is called meditation, but in the West is usually called contemplation -- seeks to still the mind and to empty it of words and images.
There are various different schools of meditation -- here I use the word in its Eastern meaning -- but there are similarities. Most will teach the need for a balanced and comfortable physical posture, but not all Westerners can adapt to the traditional cross-legged yoga position. Stress is put on the breathing. Slow deep breathing helps to still the body and the mind. In some Buddhist schools, awareness of the breathing is sufficient. Other schools suggest the repetition of a sacred word or mantra. The purpose is not so much to think about the word but by its repetition to still the endless stream of thoughts. Members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness repeatedly chant the words ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.’ Others, for example, the Brahma Kumaris, may encourage visualization of the pure soul at one with the Divine. Some people prefer to fix their gaze on a flower or an image of the divine whereas others meditate with the eyes closed.
The method is relatively unimportant; the hope is in the stillness to sense the presence of the Divine. Some meditation schools seem to suggest that such an experience is the result of following the practices they teach. Too easily meditation -- and its accompanying spiritual experiences -- can seem to be presented as development of innate human potential. This, I think, is misleading, as the sense of the presence of the Divine is always a gift of God not something that we can command or arrange to order -- even though God longs for us to be aware of the Divine presence.
Anthony Bloom writes of an old lady who told him that although she had prayed continuously for fourteen years she had never sensed the presence of God. He gave her wise advice and later she told him of her first experience. She had gone into her room, made herself comfortable, and begun to knit. She felt relaxed and then she gradually became aware that the silence was not simply the absence of sound. ‘All of a sudden’, she said, ‘I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was Him.’
I like Ann Lewin’s comparison of waiting in prayer for God to watching for a kingfisher. Prayer is like watching for the kingfisher. All you can do is Be where he is likely to appear And wait.
Often, nothing much happens: There is space, silence And expectancy. No visible sign. Only the Knowledge. That He’s been there And may come again. Seeing or not seeing cease to matter, You have been prepared. But sometimes when you’ve almost Stopped expecting it, A flash of brightness Gives encouragement.
Father Keating, a teacher of Centering Prayer, says that we may well spend twenty minutes trying to quieten the mind, but it is time well spent if it leads to one minute of deep silence.
I have spoken of waiting to sense the presence of God. That, however, is not the hope of all who meditate. Buddhists, at least of the Theravadin tradition, do not speak of God. For them, meditation is a way of learning to live fully in the present and to develop total awareness. I once spent a day in Buddhist meditation in which we alternated between sitting and concentrating on our breathing and the walking meditation in which we learned to focus fully on the act of walking -- feeling the movement of the muscles and the pressure of the foot on the ground. Full concentration on the present is of great value. Too often we are thinking about something that has occurred or may be going to happen and are not fully focused on what we are actually doing.
For the theist, however, learning to be still is a preparation for the meeting with God for which a devotee yearns. ‘I live in the hope of meeting him,’ writes Rabindranath Tagore in Gitanjali, ‘I have not seen his face, nor have I listened to his voice; only I have heard his gentle footsteps from the road before my house.’ Later, Tagore writes:
‘Have you not heard his silent steps?
He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age,
every day and every night
he comes, comes, ever comes.
Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind,
but all their notes have always proclaimed,
‘He comes, comes, ever comes.’
Not all Hindus think of the Real in theistic terms. According to the teaching of Advaita, in meditation one becomes aware of the ultimate oneness of the self with the Self of all that is -- atman is Brahman.. Many Westerners, I think, misrepresent the subtlety of Advaita Vedanta and describe it as Monism or pantheism. Sankara (?788-820), the great teacher of Advaita, speaks of the world as Maya. The word is sometimes translated as ‘illusion’, but that may be misleading. The key to Sankara’s thinking, explains T M P Mahadevan, a distinguished philosopher who was himself an Advaitin, is that ‘he postulates two standpoints: the absolute and the relative. The supreme truth is that Brahman is non-dual and relationless. It alone is; there is nothing real besides it. But from our standpoint, which is the empirical, relative standpoint, Brahman appears as God, the cause of the world.’ Just as we might mistake a coiled rope for a snake, so from our standpoint we think the world is real. If, however, we attain realization or moksa, then, from that standpoint we see the unreality of the empirical world. The Vedas teach this according to Sankara, although he insists that we need to realize this truth in experience and juana yoga, which includes meditation, is the way to that experience.
Some Christians, such as Fr. Bede Griffiths, related Christian experience closely to that of Advaita Vedanta. I have myself always felt closer to theistic Hinduism and the teachings of Ramanuja (11th or 12th century), who founded the school of philosophy known as Visistadvaita or qualified non-dualism. Ramanuja held that individual selves and the world of matter are real, but that they are always dependent on Brahman for their existence and functions. We shall refer to these two strands in Hindu philosophy again in the next chapter.
Let me here pursue some of the consequences of learning the prayer of silence for my understanding of God. One is the awareness, which as we have seen is at the heart of Hindu teaching, that the reality of the Divine cannot be fully described in words. God is more wonderful than any words that we use. This implies that what we say or write about the Ultimate Mystery is bound to be tentative, which makes me hesitant about bold affirmations of faith or too literal a reading of scripture. It has also meant that in preaching, I have tried to avoid telling people what to believe and tried to encourage them to explore their own spiritual experience.
Silent prayer has also deepened my awareness of God’s immanence or presence in my inner being. Many traditional Christian images echo Isaiah’s vision of "the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted." Even Jesus has been pictured as a great king, more splendid that any emperor, sitting in judgement on the world. Such a God is bound to appear distant and remote. Yet, as in the silence we fathom the depths of our being, we become aware of the divine presence within. For me it is not the oneness of Advaita but the fullest possible communion of love.
‘Breathe On Me, Breath Of God;
Till I Am Wholly Thine,
Until This Earthly Part Of Me
Glows With Thy Fire Divine.’
The mystical and the charismatic, although very different in their outer manifestations, have a similar emphasis on experience of the Spirit of God. Hinduism helped me to turn with appreciation to the mystical tradition in Christianity and to discover the reality of the Spirit’s presence in the heart.
But is it one and the same Divine Spirit who comes to Hindu and Christian alike? With the World Congress of Faiths I helped to arrange a series of Meditation Weekends which Bishop George Appleton or I led jointly with Swami Bhavyananda of the Ramakrishna Vedanata Movement. Each of us led times of meditation according to our own tradition and I think all present found that the teaching of both traditions led them closer to the Ultimate Divine Reality. But do all religions really lead to the same goal?