Monday, November 12, 2018

Three Reasons Not to Sit Still While Praying

If you've ever picked up a book about prayer or attended a spiritual retreat or workshop, most of them tend to prescribe the same method.

Find a quiet place. Sit still. Assume a position that will be comfortable for you (that is, that you'll be able to remain in for a while). Center your breathing to calm yourself. Usually at some point while this method is described, a line from Psalm 46 is quoted: "Be still and know that I am God."

I love this general style of prayer. When I myself am able to find the time to observe it, it helps take me away from the busyness of my days and helps me refocus on God's presence. But I confess that I don't always make time to do this, because that busyness can be so distracting and exhausting that by the time I do have a free moment, I'd rather just wind down on my couch with a TV show or book for a little while before going to bed.

If my anecdotal experience as a pastor is any indication, I am far from the only one. I hear quite often about how strained people's schedules and energy are, and making time to add spiritual practices to those obligations add stress rather than remove it.

That's why I wrote Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times. This style of prayer that many of us are encouraged to do just doesn't fit our lives very well. We should certainly find time to rest and be still and take time away from our hectic days, but there are other ways to pray besides "be still and know," and many need to discover such ways because it's the only way they're ever going to be able to do so.

So, why not sit still while praying? I can give at least three reasons, all discussed at length in my book:

1. Prayer can seem like another to-do list item. Your typical day might start before the sun comes up. It might feature getting the kids ready for school, getting ready for work, commuting, maybe sneaking in a workout over your lunch break, getting home to meet the kids getting off the bus, shoving dinner down everyone's throats before heading to evening practices or meetings, and then bedtime routines.

A prayer practice in the midst of all that could probably only be taken up earlier in the morning or after everyone else is in bed, but the mere thought of doing that might make you tired and resentful before you even begin. Prayer shouldn't inspire such emotions and attitudes; if it does, you'll likely give up on it pretty quickly, or cause you to quit before you even start.

2. Not everyone can sit still. Studies of how the mind operates have found that when we're sitting still for long periods of time, even while working on a task, there's a part of the brain that becomes bored. It's why trinkets like fidget cubes have become so popular in recent years: having something for your free hand to mess with while you're reading, studying, or doing something else that requires you sitting in the same spot for a while keeps that part of your brain engaged. Sitting still without such aids may cause you to become restless and distracted.

Some people, including many devoted to prayer, have found ways to overcome such fidgety tendencies in order to be faithful to that model of praying that encourages stillness. But not everyone may be able to. There are ways to pray while fidgeting instead.

3. God is in the moving and noise as much as the stillness and silence. This is the big one that encompasses the others. The Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence figured this out when he wrote about finding God's presence in sweeping the floor and doing the dishes in his monastery as much as when he was receiving the Eucharist. God is with us while we're trying to keep up with our schedules as much as when we're finally at a pause in them long enough to pray.

As helpful as "be still and know" has been and is for many people, there is just as much value in tapping into an awareness of God's presence in the rush and responsibility of our lives, because God is as concerned and involved in our parenting, commuting, exercising, and working as in whatever worship, prayer, or retreat that we're able to observe.

You have permission not to sit still while praying. There are other ways that account for busy lives and active personalities.

Among other ways of discovering them, you can read more in Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times.