“To pray means to change,” Douglas V. Steere writes in his foreword to Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer. I would amend this to say that to pray is to participate in one’s ongoing process of change. It is to recognize, first, where we are deficient or lacking in our striving to be Christlike, and then to petition God in plain simplicity for the grace to grow as we should.
As with the individual, so with the corporate prayer of the church. What happens when we pray together? We set ourselves aside to think in unison with others, to add our prayer to a common intention that is offered up to God. We do this during the litany of the Mass, and we do this during the silent moments of synodal sharing when we receive each other’s testimonies and listen for how the Holy Spirit is coalescing them into a few key points or impressions.
I like this distinction that Rachel Muers makes: “To keep silence together is not merely for each to keep her own silence; it is to keep one another’s silence”. This “keeping one another’s silence” is the essence of praying together, and therefore the essence of synodality that is suffused with prayer. Muers says that it “only makes sense if it is also a keeping of God’s silence, a sign and enactment of the silence in which God hears the whole of creation.”
The fine line between God’s silence and our silence is a site of tremendous potential. It is a permeable boundary, much like a cell wall through which life passes in and out. When we are gathered in a synodal fashion, be it two or three or twelve, God’s silence is allowed to percolate in the space between us. To stay with the image of the cell, it is like the cytoplasm that surrounds each individual part, and in which those parts subsist.
How this works in practice is that we arrive to the synodal gathering having steeped ourselves in silence—not a silence that precludes our thinking about or planning for the topics at hand, but that prayerfully enjoins itself in all things to the Spirit. In this it supersedes our personal wants, needs, proclivities, and plans as we set them aside for the sake of the greater conversation. Our attachment to efficiency, to producing qualifiable “results,” is likewise quelled in the Spirit’s calm. We say with the author of Ecclesiastes, “Better a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind” (4:6).
In the gathering itself, silence engenders patience. Perhaps we should begin to think of the synodal listening session as a space of silence from which speech emerges, rather than as a conversation punctuated by periods of silence. This small shift might help us further detach from ourselves and our agendas, to create those channels both between us and within us where we might hear the subtle inflections of the Word that poet Paul Claudel called “the adopted son of silence.”
If to pray is to participate in change, part of our prayer is in how we respond to the graces on offer from God. We can discern what we need to pray for; we can formulate that discernment into petitions either verbal or wordless; but without hearing and heeding the directives suggested by our prayer we will neither change nor grow. This is how we “ratify” our prayer, and how our prayer is reified into action visible in the material world—how we become the hands, head, and feet of Christ who partakes of his creation through us, and in whom we “live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28) as we seek to re-present that creation back to him.
Individually and synodally, such prayerful responsiveness requires humility. It means, first, being quiet enough inside to detect the inner movements of the conscience—for Thomas Merton, the “face of the soul”—and then being humble enough to proceed with the small step, the initial gesture, that can alter the pattern of our actions. It may also mean the risk of leaving behind old thoughts, attitudes, and practices that gave us a sense of self in order to become more fully the person—or the church—that God intends us to be.
Merton’s metaphor coupled with Augustine’s conception of God as the “witness of conscience” creates an arresting image: here, the “face of the soul” meets the gaze of God, much in the way our silence overlaps with his. Synodality happens at the heart of these overlapping silences, where the individual conscience opens to the collective and both open to the witness of God. It is then we can be said to be “journeying together” with the Holy Spirit as protagonist, following the path laid down by Christ in the gospel of John: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31).
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