A reader named Monika wrote the following comment and left it on one of my blog posts:
I recently lost my husband of 49 years to a sudden brain tumor. I sold our home and cafe for economic reasons. I always wanted to live in quiet contemplation when the right time came. I think that it is here and I have nothing but grief blocking any inner peace I am looking for. Where do I start?
All your posts seem so moving and joyful.
Thank you, Monika, for your comment. I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. And I suspect that selling your property may compound the feelings of disorientation and dislocation that are a normal part of grieving. I hope you can find the stability that is in God, who is the source of all our stability, no matter what we may be thinking or feeling or going through.
Allow the grief to be there. Try to welcome it, to offer it hospitality, as painful as that may seem. If you cry throughout your prayer, remember that the Desert Fathers and Mothers saw tears as a gift from God.
Whether we are sobbing disconsolately, crying quietly, or simply noticing the aching presence of our mourning, those of us who have welcomed grief into our lives know exactly what you mean when you say it is blocking the inner peace you seek. What is so frustrating about silent prayer is that almost anything that is going on inside us — any distracting thoughts, any tumultuous emotion, any deeply-seated passion — will likewise seem to block the peace we hunger for. I think this is why one of my favorite teachers, Kenneth Leech, says that contemplatives “explore the waste of their own being.” That doesn’t sound very inviting! But I think it’s honest. And I think honesty, authenticity, is so important in all prayer, including contemplative prayer. When we are grieving, we pray our grief, we pray through our grief. When we are joyous, we pray our joy. When we are fidgety and distracted, we pray through our fidgety distractions. And on it goes.
And once in a while, by the sheer grace of the Holy Spirit, we touch the peace we seek. And we realize that it is always, already there, hidden beneath and between all the static and noise of our ordinary awareness. What Buddhists call “the monkey mind.”
Prayer — all prayer, not just contemplative prayer — is a dance of attention and distraction. Sometimes our distractions are silly, such as when we keep thinking about a funny movie we saw last week. But at other times our “distractions” are really all about what’s going on in the deepest places in our hearts: our grief, our longing, our hope. And if that isn’t the heart of prayer, then I don’t know what is.
So pray your grief. Cry your tears. Keep breathing and try to find moments of silence and rest between the ache and the cascade of thoughts and images and feelings. If it helps, use a short prayer like the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me”) or a favorite Bible verse (“Be still and know God,” “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me”) or, what The Cloud of Unknowing recommends: a single, short word that in itself is a prayer: “God” or “Love” or “Grace.”
The prayer word or verse is helpful because it gives us a lifeline back to the restful attentiveness we seek to cultivate. When we get lost in the maelström of our grief or our distracted mind, then we return to the prayer as a way to return to the intention of simply resting in God’s silent presence. And when we relax into the deep silence that is there, beneath the chattering mind, beneath the passions of the heart, we can let the prayer words go too, and simply be still. And know.
You asked where to start. Start where you are. One day at a time. But I recommend making space in your life every day for silence, even if it’s just a few minutes. At first, the dailiness matters more than how long you sit. So give it five or ten minutes. When you hunger for more, you can give it more. But start with making it a daily practice.
I like to begin and end with a brief prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Glory Be, or this lovely prayer from Julian of Norwich:
God, of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me. I may ask nothing less that is fully to your worship, and if I do ask anything less, ever shall I be in want. Only in you I have all.
Of course, if you have another favorite prayer go with that, or even pray briefly in your own words.
Allow your prayer time to be imperfect. Prayer is about love, and love is always messy and imperfect. Love flows best when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, so we have to learn to be vulnerable in prayer, too. Fortunately, God is safe, and it really is okay to be vulnerable in God’s presence. Even to the point of crying or sobbing.
I hope some of this is helpful for you, Monika (or for anyone else who is seeking to pray through powerful emotions). Thank you for the privilege of reflecting together with you on the mystery of prayer. Please let me know how it’s going.