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Prayer and Anxiety

On Sunday morning I will teach six- seven- and eight-year-olds something about prayer. Or they may teach me.

Later this week I’ll begin a two week intensive journey of learning together with a group of adults about prayer and the practice of ministry. In both groups we will focus on and practice one of the most basic elements of prayer. It is so basic as to be missed often. It is the most common language of God.

Silence.

In silence many people find themselves adrift and anxious, assaulted by thoughts and feelings, or lost in a maze of regrets or fears or flights of fantasy. Silence can be nerve-wracking. When we close down the external noises, the volume in the internal noise can dial itself up louder. We come face to face with ourselves.

We also encounter much more than ourselves in silence. Our relationships with others exist not only outside ourselves but also as we imagine them within our hearts and minds. And silent prayer brings us into an encounter with the divine presence. As Thomas Keating says, contemplative prayer takes us beyond communication to communion. There is great power in facing our internal world for the sake of changing and living more creatively in the outer world.

It is not escape or denial of the world, but by learning to let go of all the internal noise and anxiety, to gently return our intention to divine presence, that we expand our capacity for living with meaning and hope in the world.

The most profound and lasting written and spoken prayers come out of a deep silence of God’s presence. The Psalms are filled with an intense honesty about anxiety and a profound hope in God’s presence.  Here is one of my favorite contemporary prayers which shares that same character of being rooted in the deep silence of the divine.

Prayer of Thomas Merton

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going
I do not see the road ahead of me
I cannot know for certain where it will end
Nor do I really know myself
And the fact that I think that I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so
But I believe that the desire to please you
Does in fact please you
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire
And I know that if I do this
You will lead me by the right road
Though I may know nothing about it
Therefore will I trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death
I will not fear for you are ever with me
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone

Words by Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (1958)

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