Silent CompassionSilent Compassion
by Richard Rohr

The stumbling-block most often standing between me and prayer is sheer tiredness. Tiredness of heart, spirit, brain, and body. “Help me pray, please. Get me started. Awaken something in me that’s stuck, inert, inattentive, distant.”

At times like this, I want a simple book, something that starts where I am and reminds me of things I’ve known and remembered, whets my desire to go there again. This little book is like that. Here are only as many words as I need to help me get started and not so many as to bog me down in wearisome confusion. Just brief nuggets of thought, sometimes more akin to poetry than prose, and very rooted in ordinary everyday experience.

It’s so easy to forget to remember what prayer is. So much out there masquerades as prayer, calls itself prayer, yet usually leads me away from prayer into empty formality. Church has unfortunately had that effect on me for much of my life. The wordiness, the rigid protocols of correctness, become so distracting that I lose track of God’s presence. My attention is focused on getting through the procedures demanded from me, leaving me too busy and anxious to be aware of him who hovers so near, expectantly waiting.

The older I get, the more unhappy this situation makes me. Especially with the remembrances of that deeper ocean of life-changing true prayer in my mind, recollections of the times I’ve lived in that kind of closeness to God. I want to go back there, and I’m slogging instead through a place of noise and clutter and distraction that wearies me and disturbs me and carries me further and further away from that good place. I know with hungry clarity what I’m missing, what I want, but I keep finding it withdrawn, off-limits and out of my reach. How do I break free? How do I find a way to go where he is?

This little book understands my frustration, encourages me to hope, and shows me a few windows and doors ajar, ways to begin the movement from here to there. It keeps coming back to silence. That’s what I’m so thirsty for — real, deep silence. It’s only in that kind of silence that I can hear God. But what is real, deep silence? If it is the doorway to prayer, how do I open that door?

Rohr points out that there is “an important distinction between solitude and silence. Solitude, of itself, is not silence. Solitude emerges perhaps because … you want to get away from noisy people — or you are just an introvert — and there is nothing inherently wrong or right about that. But there is nothing transformative about this kind of solitude. It is running, the opposite of connecting. A true silence has to fall into a larger silence, a shared silence, something much beyond the absence of noise. True silence holds the contraries in a way that words cannot.”

Before I can hear God speak, I must stop speaking so much myself. Prayer isn’t about the words we say; it’s about the attentive waiting for the one who speaks from a place larger and deeper than words. Stopping all the noise is difficult, though. The famous phrase about “the monkey-mind chattering away nonstop” is true. but as Rohr says, “Walking over the broad road of silence, one is much more humble and less judgmental… Silence does not put words into the mouth of the other … but patiently waits for the other to fully name himself.”

When I start talking, I inevitably also start judging. To say “Help me with this … I need that … This is important … ” — this immediately involves me in deciding what I judge to be important, what I judge to be my needs, what I decide God ought to do about it. When I stop talking, I begin to let go of my own judgement, to simply allow God to be God, to leave the deciding to the only one who really knows it all. Silence is really not about external quiet, but about internal humility, the humility to admit that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

When I let go of certainty in my prayer life, when I stop judging what needs to be done, this attitude will carry over into the world as I go out from prayer into daily activity. If I learn to let go of the desire to tell God what I think is wrong with my life, then it’ll become easier to stop deciding what’s “wrong” with the world around me. Accepting my brothers and sisters in the world for who they are must have its beginning in first accepting God for who God is, and accepting who I am in relationship with him. If I can learn to simply Be with God, then I can learn to simply be with other people.

To simply say “Hello, God — Here I am — Let me sit with you for awhile” — and then stay quiet, that’s all I must learn to do. Simple, though not easy.