When I was a student at Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida, there was a room on the top floor of the main building, the one housing the administrative offices. The room was arranged for small chapel services. This was in addition to the main chapel building in the center of campus. It was also used as a prayer room; students would go there in the evening.
It was a place of quiet prayer, a place of quiet reflection. There was none of the quite vocal prayer lifted up during the regular worship services. There was none of the shouting in the Spirit, none of the speaking in tongues. At least, that’s how it was supposed to be.
One night, I went up there to pray. There were about four or five students scattered throughout the room. Not too long after I arrived, a guy and his girlfriend appeared, and they also started praying. It did not remain quiet for very long. The fellow began confessing his sin; actually, he began confessing their sin. If he wanted to disturb everyone else in the room, he got his wish.
He began loudly asking the Lord for forgiveness. He loudly asked forgiveness for the sin they had committed together. He did that several times. His girlfriend didn’t utter a peep. (I wonder if he told her beforehand what he planned to do.) My guess is that she would have chosen to be anywhere in the world than beside this man doing the praying for her. And regarding the volume, I suppose he felt if he didn’t come clean at elevated decibels the Lord wouldn’t hear. If I didn’t know better, I would say he was putting on a display in order to boast!
Would that fall into the category—as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount—of those loving “to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others,” even for the purpose of bragging? (Mt 6:5). “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
One lesson our friend could learn from this experience would be the value of secrecy. I’m not speaking of the secrecy which is opposed to keeping confidence. Sometimes we confuse the two. In that scenario, keeping confidence is a way of building trust. Keeping confidence is not intended to do harm. It is meant to protect.
Secrecy, if we think of it that way, is used as a means of control. It’s a way of exclusion. It destroys trust. It’s a way of saying in a petulant manner, “I know something that you don’t!” That’s not what I’m talking about.
The secrecy I’m talking about is the kind Jesus valued. For example, several times he told others to not disclose certain things about him. Here’s a case in point. In Mark 1, after healing a leper, he said to him, “‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country” (vv. 44-45).
In Luke 8, Jesus restores to life the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. We’re told, “he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’ Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat. Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened” (vv. 54-56).
There have been all kinds of theories to explain his desire for secrecy, (which I won’t get into now), but it’s safe to say Jesus wasn’t looking for public acclaim. He wasn’t interested in putting on a show; he wasn’t interested in self-promotion. I imagine if anyone could be justified in displaying himself—at least, according to our usual standards—he would be the one.
That’s my main point concerning the fellow in the prayer room that night. I’m speaking of secrecy as a spiritual discipline. Whatever his motivations, he disturbed others who were trying to pray, and he exposed his poor girlfriend!
Completing Jesus’ thought from the Sermon on the Mount, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6).
The desire for holy secrecy (and “holy” seems to be a good adjective) flows quite nicely into the prayer of recollection. “Recollect” comes from Latin, “gather again.” We speak of “gathering our thoughts.” We might think of the prayer of recollection as gathering again our souls—gathering again who we are. It is a prayer of discernment. It is a prayer of listening.
In Psalm 131, the speaker adopts the position of humility, not one of display. “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” (v. 1). Does this mean the psalmist has no desire to learn? Is this a refusal to grow?
There are again a number of viewpoints on the matter, but it’s entirely possible this is someone who has learned from mistakes made. Perhaps the heart and eyes lifted up have been done in a sort of defiance. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been done in an arrogant or flagrant way but simply in a way of overstepping proper bounds, indeed, being occupied “with things too great and too marvelous.” Maybe a sort of “recollection” needs to happen!
Something we can take away from this verse is learning that the most important thing is not to learn how to get ahead. The most important thing is to simply learn how to be human, to be who we were created to be.
I fear that too often we focus on the strictly technical side of things. In doing so, we miss the big picture. A recent article by Ryan Holiday proclaimed, “Why You Should Study Philosophy.” He admits the convoluted and tedious way it’s usually presented. But it’s really not that complicated. He quotes Martha Nussbaum who said, “To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control.” That’s the basic starting point for those ancient fellows, like Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius. “An ability to trust certain things beyond your control.”
Hmm, I wonder who that sounds like?
That’s an image we see continued in verse 2. It is the heart of this short, little psalm. “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” Some people see this coming from the perspective of a mother. It’s possible that in this case, the psalmist is a woman.
There’s been a little disagreement on the Hebrew, and we have some interesting views. One version says, “No; I submit myself, I account myself lowly, as a weaned child clinging to its mother” (New English Bible). Another one reads, “No, I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms, like a little child, so I keep myself” (New Jerusalem Bible).
We’re here with the prayer of recollection. We’re here with the prayer of humble listening.
That orientation of listening is important. We often—maybe always—consider prayer to come from us outward to God. In our worship services, that’s usually the only kind of prayer we do. We have an agenda; we have a to-do list for the Lord. And of course, that isn’t anything bad. We are to lift up our supplications, our intercessions, our thanksgivings to God. But we do indeed remain shallow if we don’t listen, if we don’t wait on the Spirit.
Joan Chittister speaks of one of the Church Fathers, Abba Agathon who lived in the 4th century. “Once upon a time,” she says, “the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’ Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’”
I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I lay aside my agenda and just shut up, it is very difficult. Prayer is hard. It is hard work. I fear I too easily become lazy and simply give up. Plunging into the depths of prayer, exploring the terrain, is the work of a lifetime.
Laura Harring and Naomi Watts enter the silence (that is, “silencio”)
We enter the silence, and then everything happens. Our thoughts bubble up from within. “Yes, I have to make sure I do that today.” “What’s that sound? Let me go to the window and check it out.” “I wish I had said that to So-and-So yesterday.” But don’t be too hard on yourself. When thoughts come—and come they will if you are human—don’t fret. Look at them for a moment, and then set them aside; let them drift away.
It’s true; it’s easier for me to say this than to faithfully practice it. But like I just said, it is the work of a lifetime. (And by the way, I imagine some of you probably could teach me a lesson or two on prayer and waiting in silence.)
Our psalm ends with verse 3. “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.” The psalmist addresses the nation at large. What up until now has been the yearning of an individual is brought to the entire community. Everyone is called to the hope the psalmist is seeking.
We can think of our own community, our own country. Still, I would like to bring it closer to home, to where we are right now, to our congregation.
A few years ago, Amy Johnson Frykholm wrote on practices regarding congregational discernment, group discernment. She notes that “few congregations apply silence and contemplation to matters of church business.” How about that? Maybe we should start our next congregational meeting with a few minutes of silence!
She speaks of an experiment done with a congregation. The group was given a particular focus, something on which to meditate. She says, “Over about 30 minutes we were silent together, and then various people were offered opportunities to speak and to respond. What emerged from the silence and the listening was something strikingly different from our normal conversation. By punctuating our communication with silence, we were stripped of the desire to offer advice or jump in with stories from our own experience. By staying intentionally silent between remarks, we found ourselves offering words and images that came up from another, seemingly deeper place.”
One welcome discovery “was that the people showed more humility toward one another and seemed more open to the idea that the voice of God might come from someone else’s mouth.” (Imagine such a thing!) Even shorter periods of time can produce rich fruit, even a few minutes.
Recollection in secret. When we explore our spiritual gifts, that can serve as a foundation for them. The psalmist is really onto something!
 Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 75.
 Amy Johnson Frykholm, “Out of Silence,” Christian Century 124:7 (3 April 2007), 34-38.
 Frykholm, 34.
 Frykholm, 34.
 Frykholm, 35.