–by Betty E. Landis
Be still and know that I AM God! (Psalms 46:10)
Weekly worship at the Lutheran congregation of my childhood led me to expect thundering organ music, resonant brass instruments and hearty, strong singing of hymns like the Doxology and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” as sure-fire ways to know God was “in the house.”
Later, as an adult, I learned that the reformer Martin Luther used Psalm 46 as a lyrical basis for the closest thing my Lutheran tradition has to a patronal or alma mater song. And that same Psalm 46 includes a contradictory, yet oft-ignored worship instruction: Be still. Not simply a directive, these words function as a promise: In stillness, too, we may know God.
These days Psalm 46:10 can be a simple way to experience contemplative prayer, an ancient form of prayer that is making a comeback in faith communities. When we consider the numerous “secular” meditation and mindfulness groups that have sprung up in recent years, the practice of contemplative prayer may be a simple way to bond with neighbors who may not be connected to a faith community but, like us, hunger for authenticity and human connectivity.
It’s badly needed. Our society struggles against making idols of anxiety, competition and comparisons.
According to researcher Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, a human has about 60,000 thoughts daily, 90 percent of which are repetitive. For many people, most of these repetitive thoughts are negative. Prayer is one of the many practices Luskin has studied that people use successfully to bring about positive change.
Contemplative prayer comes in all sorts of postures, programs and procedures, but the type to which I return time and again I first encountered years ago. At that time, a mentor in Indianapolis invited me to tag along with her at a worship workshop sponsored by GIA Publications. I’ll never forget how the workshop leaders arranged the chairs in a circular formation; made space available for kneeling, sitting or reclining; dimmed the lights; scattered beautiful icons and fabrics throughout the worship space; and gave each participant a candle. They demonstrated worship developed by an ecumenical Christian monastic community in Taizé, France. While I was familiar with some Taizé songs from the With One Voice hymnal, I had not heard them sung in a chanting style. While I had lit a candle on Christmas Eve, I had never quietly placed my candle together with those of others in a container of sand, reflecting the power of our combined lights, our combined prayers.
The chanting seemed to go on forever. Yet above our repetitive chants floated the transcendent voices and the reed and stringed instruments of the workshop musicians. Sometimes there also were long silences—the kind that make you squirm until you finally give up and listen to your own breathing. Thanks to the leaders’ spoken instructions, as well as the explanations in the worship bulletin, I kept learning throughout this new worship experience. I learned how easily my mind could wander, yet how the chant’s lingering words gave me permission to release my thoughts. I learned how easily I could fidget or become distracted, yet how brief Bible passages, proclaimed in multiple languages, helped me to re-center in the now. I learned to focus on the large icons and cross bathed in candlelight. I learned there is nothing like being in a large group of silent, praying people.
The Rev. Betty E. Landis has served as an ELCA pastor in the Metropolitan Chicago and Allegheny synods.
This article is excerpted from the July/August 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.