Setting some time apart every day for withdrawal in silence is a practical and necessary step towards becoming a spiritual person.
However, not only the time element is essential; choosing the right place is equally important.
We may rightly consider our life as a journey. We are travelling all the time, but, humanly speaking, our point of departure and our destination are not so clear. It is as if the road behind us and the way ahead are shrouded in deep fog.
Who am I? Where do I come from? What is the purpose of my journey? Am I, perhaps, losing my way?
It is obvious that in such a human condition we cannot afford simply to walk on blindly. We have to take our bearings. We express this symbolically, but very meaningfully, by choosing a convenient place and a posture of 'rest' for our inner prayer.
In one way the place of prayer is not important.
We can withdraw into ourselves and pray almost anywhere. But experience shows that it helps our inner prayer if we select the right place for it.
Some places are naturally more conducive to recollection and concentration. Is it not for this reason that people are asked to keep silent in public libraries?
Jesus set us an example
Obviously, a sensible thing to do is to minimise background noise. If at all possible, we should avoid a place where external noise is bound to drown our inner attention.
Perhaps, this is so straight-forward that there is no need to work this out in examples. It makes good sense to select a place where we can find a measure of physical silence.
We read in the Gospels that Jesus Christ began his public ministry by withdrawing to the desert for forty days (Luke 4,1-2). Moreover, throughout his life he was accustomed to pray in lonely places, where he could be alone.
Whenever Jesus had been busy during the day, he would make time for prayer during the night.
"Large crowds would gather to hear him and to have their
sicknesses cured. But afterwards he would go off to some place where he
could be alone and pray" (Luke 5,15-16).
On one occasion Jesus sent his disciples across the lake in a boat. "Dispersing the crowd, he went into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone". (Matthew 15,23).
Jesus needed such moments alone, away from the crowd, face to face with his Father in silence.
We, too, should choose a peaceful place,
What is your sacred corner?
It is interesting to observe that in practically all religious traditions specific buildings have been set aside for worship and prayer. Think of churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, gurudwaras and so on. These are built in such a way as to inspire recollection in us by their design and decoration. If we like the mood of such a house of prayer, we may well feel drawn to find our moment of silence there.
However, few of us live next door to a church. Fewer still may find their local church well-suited for their personal daily prayer.
So why not create our own 'sacred haunt'?
In the past dukes and barons had 'private chapels' built into their castles and mansions. And ladies of high rank had a 'refuge' in their garden where they could withdraw and be on their own. Why not follow the same idea by designating some specific place in our home or its surroundings for our moment of silence?
We could choose a cosy corner of our own, a bench in the back garden, a favourite armchair near the fire, the top of our bed in our own bedroom.
It is not essential to select the same place each time. But if we do, it will help us enter into our 'inner space' more easily. The mind associates locations with activities. Our physical withdrawal to our own 'hallowed place' will help the mind withdraw to its act of inner focus.
The posture we adopt can also help us. However, we should not choose a posture for its own sake. The determining factor should be whether the posture helps us concentrate in a free and relaxed manner.
One traditional Christian posture has been kneeling on both knees, with hands folded and eyes closed. Pews in churches were designed to facilitate this posture. Sometimes people pray like this at home, kneeling on both knees, their folded hands resting on a table or on the side of a bed. If we are used to this and find it natural, fine. Otherwise, choose a more congenial posture.
Hindus in India and Zen Buddhists in Japan are accustomed to pray sitting on the floor, crosslegged. The practice can be helpful if we do not adhere to its requirements too rigidly. For most of us the posture may be so unusual that accommodating it may distract us from the content of our prayer.
Other postures could be: sitting in a chair or on a bench, walking around in a place where you will not be much distracted, lying on your back with your eyes closed - though if this puts you to sleep, it is no use!
Day after day let the seeker practise harmony of soul: in a secret place, in deep solitude, master of his mind, hoping for nothing, desiring nothing.
Let him find a place that is pure and a seat that is restful, neither too high nor too low, with sacred grass and a skin and a cloth thereon.
On that seat let him rest and practise meditation for the purification of the soul: with the life of his body and soul in peace; his soul in silence before the One.
With upright body, head and neck, which rest still and move not; with inner gaze which is not restless, but rests still within the eyebrows; with soul in peace, and all fear gone, and strong in the vow of holiness, let him rest with mind in harmony, his soul on me, his God supreme.
Bhavagad Gita (India, 500 BC?)
I advise you to take a liking to real, physical solitude.
I don't mean that you need to go into the desert as the old hermits did. It will be enough to stay in your room or walk in the garden or remain in any other place where you find it easy to recollect yourself.
There you should withdraw your mind within your own heart and refresh yourself with some solid reflection, some holy thoughts and some useful reading.
St. Francis of Sales (France 1567-1622)
What you should do
For the video clip from "The Seven Circles of Prayer" we obtained permission from the copyright owner Housetop. The text was taken from "Stepping into the Seven Circles of Prayer" by John Wijngaards who is also the author of this course; illustrations are by Alison Conti.