Christian Prayer: Silence & Dancing
Between Knowing and Unknowing

All four Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed.  He prayed alone on mountains and in the wilderness.  He prayed on roads, in people’s homes and in temples.  He prayed alone with God and he prayed with and for others.  He prayed out loud and he prayed silently, in his own heart.  Those prayers that we hear in the words of the Gospel often reflect or even repeat the prayers we find in Jewish scriptures.  Jesus prayed as a Jew and his prayers often taste like the Psalms. We can guess from his ministry that Jesus placed a higher priority on prayer than on religious duties and laws.

If God is sometimes depicted in Hebrew scripture as a personal presence with qualities and emotions analogous to human ones, Jesus’s prayers indicate that he was selective in his references to Hebrew images of God.  Most often, his prayers assume that God is a consistent loving presence--not an arbitrary, wrathful, jealous or vindictive One--who will always protect and guide him and never abandon him.  Jesus’s prayers assume that he is, in a way, in love with God and that he himself is the Beloved of God.  His prayers also suggest that he knows himself to be simultaneously at one with God and also distinct from God.

Unfortunately, Jesus did not provide us with a detailed developmental program of prayer.  In fact, the only explicit direction he gave is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew where he emphasizes solitude and a specific focus on God as Creator and Father.  The prayer that begins, “Our Father in heaven” is probably the one prayer that Christians of all denominations have in common.  By tradition it is called The Lord’s Prayer:

Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Christian Mindfulness & Emptiness

When Americans in the early 21st century think of meditation and other spiritual disciplines for training oneís awareness, we think of Buddhism. American Buddhist teachers have called attention to the fact that most Americansí minds are like a tree full of jumping monkeys. In any given moment we are not really present, but rather worrying and obsessing about yesterday and tomorrow. We are distracted, multi-tasking creatures of habit who suffer by being inwardly divided. This is why there are popular Buddhist meditation centers in every American city. We are looking for relief from the chaos and violence in our own minds. Most Americans donít know that we Christians have inherited many spiritual tools to help us break through the cloud of gnats and mosquitoes in our minds that we call obsessive thinking, worry, anxiety and habitual fear.

For example, one of the Christian Desert Fathers, the monk Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 A.D.), taught a form of hesychasm (Greek: quiet) in which one comes to see the conditioned links between thoughts and emotions, and then, through meditation and prayer, finds a deep calm called apatheia. In apatheia the mind is integrated and purified of its naturally tumultuous activity, allowing one to simply ďbeĒ in Godís presence or to pray without distraction. Monks such as Evagrius believed that virtue in oneís speech and behavior would follow freely from a mind that is emptied of distracting thoughts. Some other Christian contemplatives would describe this emptying as a kind of on-going detachment from chaotic thoughts. Itís not that thinking goes away--sometimes our thoughts may bring blessings or healings!--but that we experience an inward spaciousness so that we are not so caught up in our own thoughts and worries. When we have this kind of detachment, we are less likely to mistake our thoughts and opinions for our present reality.

Three Ways to Pray

Go to your holy place.
Spend some moments settling down.  Use whatever ways you have learned to center yourself.  Let the spine be straight, the body relaxed and alert.  Let your body be firmly planted on the earth, your hands resting easily, your heart soft, your eyes closed gently.  Bring awareness to your body.  Consciously soften any obvious tension.  Notice your breath.  Notice your feelings and thoughts.  Let go of any habitual thoughts or plans. 
Remember your desire for God in the form of a prayer or wordless feeling. 

(Extracted from a lovely little book on kinds of prayer that emerge from Jesusís crucifixion.†See Margaret Bullitt-Jonasís, Christ's Passion, Our Passions, Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2003).

Buddhist Methods of Meditation

There are many excellent resources devoted to Buddhist meditation on the World Wide Web. Rather than offer a list, we recommend that those who are interested please check their favorite search engine for websites about various forms of Buddhism. 
          Frequently, such websites will feature a button that is labeled “Methods” or “Meditation Instruction”.  To get a good sense of the variety of Buddhist meditation methods, check out different traditions.  Search phrases such as: Vipassana Buddhism, Hinayana Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Ch’an Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Shin Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism or Pure Land Buddhism.

images © Robert Jonas