Trust in the simplicity of prayer:
In which we are simplified
In the book of Isaiah, we are given a wonderful summary of the simple heart of prayer:
“In returning and rest you shall be saved,
in quietness and trust your strength lies.”
In returning and rest, in quietness and trust, God leads us to the depths of who we are in him, the depths of his love for us.
The essence of prayer, this crisp teaching suggests, is radically simple. Yet, most of us will have encountered how, for various reasons, it can be difficult to accept this and release ourselves into the welcoming simplicity of prayer.
A whole host of reasons can lead to us to try and complicate prayer. When it comes to the silent prayer of meditation, it is often its radical simplicity that people can initially find challenging. As one of my teachers would often say, it is meditation, not the simple and obvious truth to which meditation is a gate, that people find difficult.
Certain books can give the impression that prayer is quite a complicated business. We might have been told at some time that we need to do this or that, or understand this or that. In various ways, prayer can be presented as if there is a lot of ground to cover to be in the right place with God. But there is no ground to cover. God is the very Ground of our being. If this were not so we would not exist.
As a wave cannot be separate from the sea, we cannot be separate from God, who, as St. Augustine taught, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
We don’t need to find any special way of getting in touch with God. Rather, we need to let go of any notions of prayer that cause us think otherwise. There’s no special mystical key we need to get hold of to unlock any special mystical door. As we read in the Book of Revelation, “Behold, there is an open door before you, which no one can close.”
We have a tendency to want to complicate what is simple. All God wants to do through the simplicity of prayer is simplify us, to lead us back from distractedness to wholeness, to know the love “in which we live and move and have our being.”
“Basing ourselves” Ruth Burrows writes, “on what Jesus shows us of God (and we Christians have only one teacher, Jesus the Christ who is our Way), we must realise that what we have to do is allow ourselves to be loved, to be there for Love to love us.”
Those are tremendously encouraging words. But how do we deal practically with our tendency to want to complicate prayer? How can we simply be here, present in the present, and allow ourselves to be loved, when our attention seems so often to be elsewhere?
Well, this is where trust comes in. It requires great trust to return our attention where our bodies are, to where our life actually is, and rest in quietness. It takes great trust to set out on a way of prayer that is about handing the controls back to God (though they were never anywhere else). It takes trust to lift our attention off ourselves, to believe that God has everything in hand and simply sit “with a loving awareness of God, with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing about God.”
Prayer, which is not primarily something we do, but is what God does within and for us, happens at a depth that we cannot see, “secretly in darkness, hidden from the faculties…so hidden that the mind cannot speak of it.” Which is why we can’t and shouldn’t try to judge our practice, or allow ourselves to get caught up in worries about whether we are praying correctly. It largely doesn’t register in our consciousness.
All of which can help us understand why our discursive, conceptualising mind can sometimes object to silent prayer with great energy, persistence and creativity. This surface aspect of mind wants things to register, loudly and clearly. It wants to be entertained. It wants prayer to be entertaining. It will try to keep one hand (or, even better, two hands) on what it imagines are the controls of prayer. It cannot succeed, of course. Prayer, being primarily what God does and what we participate in, cannot be grasped or controlled in any way. And so, we can find ourselves being driven to go searching around trying different forms of prayer, until we find one with the right level of entertainment (until, that is, we become bored again, and resume the endless search outside ourselves for what is ceaselessly happening within).
How do we face this challenge? In returning and rest, in quietness and trust, just sitting “with a loving awareness of God, with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing about God.”
Something I’ve found helpful when sitting in meditation and a thought has suggested I’m doing nothing, is to gently tell it I’m content to trust that God is doing everything.
All we need to do is sit quietly, trusting that we are in the right place, that we are perfectly acceptable to God as we are (warts and all) and be present for Love to love us.
If we do this, if we remain with Christ, centered on him in quietness and trust, silent rivers of living water flow from within us, and remarkable things tend to happen, regardless of what we feel or don’t feel during our time of prayer.
I mean remarkable things like small acts of kindness, patience, compassion, forgiveness, a disposition of greater selflessness. Signs of the silent living water will quite naturally bubble-up, quietly saturating the messy business of our daily life and relationships with those around us.
This is what our practice of meditation is about and where it lands, opening us to ever deeper communion with each other. As Rowan Williams advises, “Whenever we’re tempted to think of spirituality as something a bit remote and specialised, or rather exotic and exciting, we ought to say to ourselves: love, joy, peace, patience, bog-standard human goodness.”
God is pouring his love into us right now, right here, whatever we might be feeling about ourselves and our prayer.
Let’s sit in simple trust, content to believe that God has everything in hand.
 Isaiah 30:15.
 Revelation 3:8.
 Acts 17:28.
 Ruth Burrows, The Essence of Prayer, Burns & Oats 2006, p.3.
 St. John of the Cross, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies 1991, p.92.
 St. John of the Cross, quoted by Ruth Burrows, ibid., p.8.
 St. John of the Cross, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ibid.
 John 7:38
 Rowan Williams, Being Disciples, Essentials of the Christian Life, SPCK 2016, p.76.