Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The Method of the Guide
The ‘Guide to True Peace’ offers a simple method of prayer, referred to as the prayer of inward silence. The method is stated in Chapter 1:
“We must retire from all outward objects, and silence all the desires and wandering imaginations of the mind; that in this profound silence of the whole soul, we may hearken to the ineffable voice of the Divine Teacher. We must listen with an attentive ear; for it is a still, small voice. It is not indeed a voice uttered in words, as when a man speaks to his friend; but it is a perception infused by the secret operations and influences of the Divine Spirit, insinuating to us obedience, patience, meekness, humility, and all the other Christian virtues, in a language perfectly intelligible to the attentive soul.”
This is what the ‘Guide’ calls us to do: to ‘silence all the desires and wandering imaginations of the mind’. In Chapter 5 the ‘Guide’ elaborates on the method:
“The sort of prayer to which we have alluded, is that of inward silence; wherein the soul, abstracted from all outward things, in holy stillness, humble reverence, and lively faith, waits patiently to feel the divine presence, and to receive the precious influence of the Holy Spirit.”
I understand the ‘Guide’ to be saying that when we enter the prayer of interior silence we are entering ‘expectant waiting’; that is to say we are waiting patiently for the Holy Spirit. This helps us to understand the ‘how’ of the method. This patient waiting is how we enter into inward silence. It resembles when we are waiting patiently for an honored guest to arrive. We might clean the house, or prepare a repast for the arrival, but our mind is actually turned to the arrival of the guest. And so our mind is concentrated in the direction of the arrival. This is how we should treat ‘all the desires and wandering imaginations of the mind’; treat them as minor activities, but our focus should be on patiently waiting for the Holy Spirit.
Chapter 5 continues:
“And when you retire for this purpose, which should be your frequent practice, you should consider yourself as being placed in the presence of God . . . And should any vain imaginations present themselves, you should gently turn from them; and thus faithfully and patiently wait to feel the Divine presence.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of the ‘Guide’ is that it recommends ‘frequent practice’ of the prayer of interior silence. I wonder how many Quakers practiced this silent prayer at home, on a regular basis? Evidently quite a few did. Corporate silence, the gathered silence of Meeting for Worship, could be continued in what I sometimes think of as a ‘meeting for one’. This is a dimension of Quaker spirituality which does not seem to be in the foreground these days. I mean that a daily practice of the prayer of inward silence is not something I hear about, or read about, among Quakers at this time. But the ‘Guide’ suggests that Quakers were open to such spiritual discipline.
The ‘Guide’ does not underestimate the obstacles to such a practice. Chapter 5 continues:
“It will at first be difficult, from the habit the mind will have acquired of being always from home, roving hither and thither, and from subject to subject, to restrain it, and free it from those wanderings which are an impediment to prayer.”
So what do we do when we find ourselves distracted by the ‘habit of mind’ to constantly wander? The ‘Guide’ recommends that we not enter into a contest with our thoughts or try to actively suppress them:
“And although we should at all times be very watchful and diligent in recalling our wandering thoughts, restraining them, as much as may be, in due subjection; yet a direct contest with them only serves to augment and irritate them; whereas, by calling to mind that we are in the presence of God, and endeavouring to sink down under a sense and perception thereof, simply turning inwards; we wage insensibly a very advantageous, though indirect war with them.”
This is a subtle practice. Again, I think the analogy of waiting for an honored guest is helpful. If we are eagerly waiting for someone to arrive, we do not want to get involved in too many things, or projects that are too complicated. If we suddenly feel an impulse to start some project, a gentle reminder that we are waiting for the honored guest will deflect that impulse; because we want to be ready when the guest arrives. Similarly, in the prayer of inward silence, when the mind offers distractions, a gentle reminder that we are in the Presence of God will deflect us from following the mind in its latest distraction.
Another analogy is waiting for someone at a train station. While we are waiting trains arrive and depart, and they are all going interesting places. But we do not board any of these trains because we are waiting for someone, someone important in our lives. If the impulse arises to board a train, we remember that now is not the time to take a trip; because we are waiting for our guest who is arriving soon. Similarly, when a ‘mind train’ appears, and we are in the prayer of inward silence, we remind ourselves that we are in the Presence of God, and are waiting patiently for that presence to arrive. And because of this we do not board the mind train as it leaves the station; we simply remain in place, patiently waiting.
The ‘Guide’ has some practical suggestions, again from Chapter 5:
“Outward silence is very requisite for the cultivation and improvement of the inward; and, indeed, it is impossible we should become internal, without the love and practice of outward silence and retirement. And unquestionably our being internally engaged with God, is wholly incompatible with being busied and employed in numerous trifles that surround us.”
Outward silence and stillness sets the stage for the prayer of inward silence. Sitting comfortably in a chair, quietly, patiently, enter into the prayer of inward silence. The ‘Guide’ recommends doing this daily. The ‘Guide’ offers a general, almost passing, suggestion of an ‘appointed half-hour, or hour’ for this practice. My own experience is that even a short period, such as ten minutes, is valuable. Again, my own experience is that somewhere between twenty and forty minutes is good; that longer than that tends to produce sleepiness and bodily sluggishness. No doubt the duration will vary among different people. And, I suspect, the duration of the practice of the prayer of interior silence will vary with the changing circumstances of our lives.
Progress in this type of prayer emerges as the growing sense of the Presence of God even when one is not specifically engaged in this prayer. The sense of the eternal Presence becomes, gradually, abiding. One begins to enter into prayer constantly. But there is an ebb and flow to this; there are setbacks or periods when one feels a disconnect from the Presence. The ‘Guide’ considers these periods, these dry spells, as something to be endured; as, in fact, gifts of the Holy Spirit. If one perseveres, these periods of disconnect will pass.
This type of prayer, the prayer of inward silence, is simplicity itself. One does not have to be learned, it is equally open to all classes, to all genders, to all races, to all of humanity. It is a great gift. As the ‘Guide’ says at its conclusion, it is the ‘pearl of great price.’