For the past three years, I have written for anxious, result-driven evangelicals, encouraging them to adopt the practice of contemplative prayer, which dates back to the desert mothers and fathers: an early monastic movement in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine that peaked in the 300’s and 400’s, and birthed the practice of silent, contemplative prayer.
Inevitably, some readers who enjoy my writing about prayer have pleaded with me—after encountering my writing on social justice or political activism—“Stick to the spiritual stuff. Politics and activism are too divisive.”
This perceived division between silent prayer and activism is nothing new. Many assume that the care of the inner life makes the neglect of our neighbors inevitable.
Many assume that the care of the inner life makes the neglect of our neighbors inevitable.
How can an activist make space to pray, let alone in silence? How can the spiritually centered move into greater engagement and activism?
Silence and solitude are essential aspects of contemplative prayer, a practice of prayer that waits on God and trusts in God’s present love and grace. While silence can be especially helpful in becoming attentive to God while praying, it is hardly an excuse to remain aloof from the needs of our neighbors.
Here’s how I’ve found that silent prayer has prompted greater action in social and political issues in my own life.
What Is Contemplative Prayer?
Before we can see how silent prayer, or contemplative prayer, can shape us for action, we need to cut through the misconceptions and lack of information about it in evangelical circles. Contemplative prayer is the intimate experience of God within us. It begins with a simple intention to be present for our loving God and trusts God’s indwelling Holy Spirit will do the work of prayer and transformation within us.
Before we can see how silent prayer, or contemplative prayer, can shape us for action, we need to cut through the misconceptions and lack of information about it in evangelical circles.
Author Cynthia Bourgeault, who has studied prayer from many religious traditions, writes in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, “Contemplative prayer is simply a wordless, trusting opening of self to the divine presence.”
The silent practice of contemplative prayer guides us toward resting in the fullness of God and God’s love. It’s a peaceful practice that pulls us away from striving, fear, and defending boundaries. As we learn to trust that God is present and we become even more aware of his loving presence, we’ll begin to experience the transforming power of God in our lives and will be free to disengage from defending our illusions of ourselves.
Silent Prayer Transforms Us
In The Way of the Heart, Henrí Nouwen assures us that the silent spirituality of the early mothers and fathers of the desert can give us a renewed sense of stability in our identity as God’s beloved children. “Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter—the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.”
Nouwen then cuts even more directly to the heart of the matter: “The wisdom of the desert is that the confrontation with our own frightening nothingness forces us to surrender ourselves totally and unconditionally to the Lord Jesus Christ.” He assures us that “solitude molds self-righteous people into gentle, caring, forgiving persons who are so deeply convinced of their own great sinfulness and so fully aware of God’s even greater mercy that their life itself becomes ministry.”
For an evangelical movement that is sometimes labeled as self-righteous, hypocritical, or judgmental, this surrender of our self-images to a merciful God could lead to profound transformation that makes us more compassionate toward others.
Silent Prayer Teaches Us Attention to Others
For evangelicals entangled in a consumer-oriented, self-serving spirituality, a dose of awareness and empathy for the perspectives and experiences of others can offer a welcome step forward. Regular silence before God can help us withdraw from the noise in our own minds and embrace both the struggles and aspirations of others.
It’s a false dichotomy to suggest that solitude is the opposite of an engaged life. As isolated as the desert fathers and mothers may have been, their commitment to silent prayer led them to minister to the people of their day, whether through letters, preaching tours, or hospitality—to say nothing of the ways their collected sayings have benefited future generations.
It’s a false dichotomy to suggest that solitude is the opposite of an engaged life.
Nouwen writes that one desert father shared, “My rule is to practice the virtue of hospitality toward those who come to see me and send them home in peace.” Their pursuit of silence before God was actually a pursuit of being fully present for their neighbors.
In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton explains their mission like this: “They had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world. And thus to leave the world, is, in fact, to help save it in saving oneself.”
These desert fathers and mothers withdrew from the arguments and concerns of their day to serve others from a place of wholeness, peace, and connection with God. Merton adds, “Once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.”
While each Christian will have a different experience of silent prayer, there’s no doubt that a regular practice of solitude before God can reveal the fears, misconceptions, and illusions that cloud how we see others, ourselves, and God. When we are no longer immersed in our own concerns and fears, having surrendered them to God, we can be transformed by God’s present love and can’t help but concern ourselves with the well-being of our neighbors.
Silent Prayer and Action
I have admittedly laid a lot of groundwork in arriving at a place where I can point to the tangible results of silent prayer in the service of action. No doubt, this is an incremental process of transformation that may not always be seen at first.
Bourgeault describes the “results” of silent prayer like this, in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening:
“The fruits of this prayer are first seen in daily life. They express themselves in your ability to be a bit more present in your life, more flexible and forgiving with those you live and work with, more honest and comfortable in your own being. These are the real signs that the inner depths have been touched and have begun to set in motion their transformative work.”
These are all useful qualities in engaging in activism. For Christians in a consumer, self-centered culture, we can benefit from growing in empathy toward those who are suffering, as well as developing a capacity to thoughtfully and fruitfully engage with those advancing oppressive and/or dangerous policies.
I have often felt this tension when engaging with my own neighbors who support the confederate monument downtown, or when discussing the much-needed expansion of our town’s library. I have felt the temptation to engage in scorched earth arguments, realizing that my inclinations are rooted more in a desire to be right than to be just and transformative. Praying in solitude will always be easier than engaging with the needs of my community.
As badly as I need to be transformed by the present love of God, there’s always the temptation to withdraw and to cater to my own needs—what I call consumer contemplation. Teachers of contemplation find such a withdrawal unacceptable, as the real presence of God’s love in our lives can’t help but prompt us to reach out to our neighbors in loving action.
If our silent pursuit of God results merely in a fixation with our own comfort and desires, then perhaps we have been seeking something other than God in our silence in the first place.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, from which this article was adapted, A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to Faith and Growth, and other books. He writes weekly at This Kinda Contemplative Life at Patheos, and he lives in Western Kentucky with his wife and children.