But solitude and silence are for prayer. … They did not think of silence as not speaking, but as listening to God. – The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen (page 53)
Everything we’ve looked at up to this point has been leading to this. Unfortunately, Nouwen makes his case for this from something I can’t find in the Bible. He associates the Greek word for rest with the phrase “pray always” and I can’t find the connection.
Everywhere I look in scripture I find prayer associated with speaking and specifically with making requests of God. This is a good thing and we are encouraged to do this. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul clearly instructs the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. We are to be aware of God and talking to Him constantly. I’ve often told people that prayer is communicating with God. I still believe that, but the Bible is much more explicit about our talking than it is about God speaking.
For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6 ESV)
I think this is the struggle and what the desert fathers were attempting to achieve. Through solitude and silence, they were doing their best to set their minds on the Spirit. We are physical beings and we most easily understand physical things. We want to hear God. I don’t know what I would do if I heard an audible voice speaking to me out of nothing. I ask for God to shout at me all the time and He never has.
To be led by the Spirit involves making two connections that are both difficult for us to understand. First, I must connect my mind with my Spirit. This requires recognizing that I’m a spiritual being and connecting with a part of me that isn’t any one of my five senses. Second, my spirit must connect with God’s Spirit. I don’t think any effort is required here. If I have accepted God’s gift of grace to me, then He has promised the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Paul spends much of his writing attempting to help us understand what life in the Spirit looks like. The desert fathers believed that life in the Spirit was best achieved by solitude and silence. What would our lives look like if our minds were really set on the Spirit? What would pray look like if it was a response to the leading of the Spirit?