Beginning Contemplation: Review of ‘How to Sit With God’

How to Sit With God – A Practical Guide to Silent Prayer Jean-Marie Gueullette Tr Kieran J. O’ Mahony Veritas, 2018

Jack is twenty-nine, he has been married for seven years and has two children under five. He and his wife both graduated with very good degrees from one of the UK’s best universities. They married that same year and moved to the northern town where they now live and work in full-time ministry for a ‘non-denominational church’.

Jack and his wife are fictionalised versions of many individuals and couples I have come to know in recent years. Their friends have high powered jobs in the City, Civil service or industry. But they became involved in large evangelical churches while at university, took part in summer activities and placements in various parts of the country. They have heard and responded to God calling them to ministry in places they would never have been to otherwise.

I am almost overwhelmed with awe when I see the sacrifice that couples and individuals like this have made. This is taking the option for the poor seriously.

It is not easy in so many ways. The energy and enthusiasm of a large church full of committed young people makes it easy to sustain faith, to feel confident and buoyed up. But the realities of life in places where there are no or few young people at church; where the levels of neediness, mental health issues and all the associated factors of poverty are the dominant reality can eat away at that.

Conferences, visits to and from friends, inspiring podcasts can all help. However, moments of spiritual renewal and refreshment can sometimes make the thirst seem greater at other times.

That’s the question Jack came to me with having followed me on Twitter. How can I sustain my prayer, my relationship with Jesus in the daily grind, the relentless cycle of family, children, pastoral work, ministry?

Like many others, Jack’s family are experimenting with forms of daily prayer. They bought Northumbria Community Office books, and tried other online materials – but found them unsatisfying.

Jack feels a need for silence – not just as an escape from family life! – but in his prayer.

I made two suggestions. For daily prayer just reading Scripture as it is. Beginning with psalmody, as much or as little as wanted at each sitting, and then readings from a ‘bible in a year’ plan.

My other suggestion was around finding some time every day for contemplative practice. Sitting still with God.

I wish I had found Jean-Marie Gueullette’s book How To Sit With God, when I first met Jack. Gueullette is a French Dominican priest teaching at the University of Lyon. I know nothing more about him. His book is an excellent introduction to Christian contemplative prayer. It is wise, unpretentious and practical. I have already bought multiple copies to share.

As I read How To Sit With God, I marked with a pencil important passages and quotations. My copy is very heavily underlined throughout. This is a rich source of teaching. Gueullette begins by showing how the prayer he is suggesting is the simplest possible form of prayer. This simplicity will have a strong appeal to those who are looking for an un-churchy, un-adorned gospel. Jesus in the raw.

Perhaps even more attractive to those formed by conservative evangelicalism will be Gueullette’s emphasis on faith as the fundamental requirement for contemplative prayer. In this short (176 page) book he goes on to describe how to do this prayer and places it within the context of struggle and discipline There is no pretence that this will be easy. He shows how it is one way of praying among others and finally gives an overview of the place of this prayer in Christian history.

It is this final section of the book that is weakest for the purposes for which I want to use it. here, Gueullette is writing very much from his tradition and nation. After the early centuries of Christian history is exclusively Roman Catholic and heavily weighted to France, with sections on Francis de Sales and the seventeenth century French spiritual tradition. That said the English mystics get surprisingly strong treatment in the main text of the book. In particular the Cloud of Unknowing; the source of English Benedictine spirituality (in the English Benedictine Congregation), Augustine Baker, and in its twentieth century flowering in the spiritual letters of Dom John Chapman of Downside. Although as Gueullette points out Baker lived in northern France for significant parts of his adult life and so might well be said to represent, partially at least, French spirituality.

My only other criticism of this book is Gueullette’s reference point in those Christians who have sought, and discovered, a practice of silence and stillness in the traditions of the Far East. I agree with everything he says about the need to be aware of the religious beliefs that underpin some of the practices, making them unsuitable for Christians. However, he never refers to the secular practices of mindfulness that are not rooted in an alien metaphysic. It may be simply a refection of his context in French Catholicism. Again, for my purposes this material is not useful. Most of the people I work with have not investigated Far Eastern traditions but come from evangelical Protestant traditions.

Method

Gueullette presents the method of prayer he is describing simply and beautifully. Quite simply:

It consists of saying a word inwardly while sitting calmly.

(page 17)

Gueullette suggests words such as: Father, Abba, Jesus, Lord, God, Kyrie Eleison, Adonai. Fundamental to his teaching is that the word

… must be a name for God, not an idea about God or a description of God such as ‘love’ or ‘goodness’.

(page 17)

Throughout the book Gueullette stresses that this is a practice for a lifetime, and will bear fruit over many years. He distinguishes the practice from that of repeating a phrase or verse of the psalms or other parts of Scripture through the course of the day (as suggested by John Cassian).

Twenty five minutes a day is the time suggested for silence. Interestingly Gueullette suggests staying faithful to that amount of prayer even when the desire to sit for longer comes. For him it is important to be free of ‘feelings’ as the driver of prayer.

To those who think rules like this rob us of spontaneity he is clear that this practice is principally about faithfulness and discipline:

Faithfulness calls for a certain discipline, which today can appear contrary to authenticity or spontaneity. yet we are ready to accept it when it comes to dieting or keeping fit! In the case of physical exercise, as in the spiritual life, one can only progress at the cost of daily effort. It is not the extraordinary experience that make the life of prayer, but the humble fidelity to it every day, lived over many years.

(page 108)

Posture

Very few books on prayer are helpful on posture. This is extremely unfortunate because it is so important. When I began my first degree, in World Religions, I remember arriving at Buddhist monasteries, Mosques, Hindu Mandirs, Sikh temples and almost the first thing were told was how to sit, what posture to adopt. More than that, detailed instruction would be given on prayer and meditation at the very outset.

Gueullette knows what he is talking about when it comes to posture. He is clear on the role of the spine and pelvis and in using the abdomen (the diaphragm) for breathing.

It is mainly the spine that helps us stay awake: without being tense or stiff it stands, resting on the pelvis, supported by our breathing.

(page 28)

There are good descriptions of using prayer stools and meditation cushions with the lotus, half-lotus or sitting positions. Whatever posture is adopted the author is clear that it is sitting that is essential, and he quotes another English mystic, Richard Rolle:

It is the quiet sitting that makes the soul wise.

(page 27)

Breathing

At the heart of sitting still is an activity we are engaged in as long as we are alive. Breathing. In this fascinating lecture at St Vladimir’s Seminary Bishop Alexander of the Orthodox Church in America shows how the roots of using the breath in prayer have textual evidence as early as the 5th to the 6th centuries. Again How To Sit With God gets this exactly right. Breath is not something for the author, that requires too much attention, but is significant. The ‘letting go’ that is the end of the out breath is particularly significant. If we think at all about breathing we tend to think of it as something that requires equal effort on the out and in breath but in fact once the contraction of the ribs that is the out-breath has reached its limit the air naturally fills the lungs again:

We do not need to look for air, we just have to empty the air inside us. … You just have to let go, to stop exhaling so that breathing in takes place spontaneously.

(page 36)

Theology of Sitting Still

Gueullette carefully addresses the apparent contradiction between faith and works in his explanation of this method of prayer. For him God’s action is paramount. His key conversation partner is, not surprisingly Augustine. Fundamental to his view is that:

The methods under discussion here act upon us and not upon God.

(page 45)

and

The one who prays does not seek to feel the presence of God, but rather is called upon to believe it.

(page 59)

Distractions

One of the key issues facing anybody who tries to sit still and be with God, or even follow the breath in Mindfulness practice is thoughts. What are often called ‘distractions’. Gueullette helpfully quotes Abbot Chapman at length:

We want to use our will to ‘want God’, and not to keep our thoughts in order. We want to be ‘wanting God’, and detached from everything else. hence we want to let our thoughts run about by themselves … and not to control them; in order that our will may turn wholly to God. the result is naturally that, while our will is making its intense (but also imperceptible) act of love, our imagination is running about by itself, just a sir does in a dream; so that we seem to be full of distractions, and not praying at all. But this is contrary of the fact. The distractions, which are so vivid to us, are not voluntary actions, and have no importance; whereas the voluntary action we are performing is the wanting God …

(quoted on page 60)

For busy people

If you lead a very active lifestyle and feel there are never enough hours in the day, you are the ideal candidate for silent prayer.

(page 62)

Gueullette is clear that like breathing, thinking is what we do when we are alive, it is:

the signs of cerebral activity and it is not really helpful to dream of a time when the brain would no longer function.

(page 75)

Lifestyle

Gueullette suggests ways in which this form of prayer will change our lives. Getting up earlier. Watching less television. Creating a place for prayer at home. Silent prayer will have ethical consequences in our lives.

Seriousness

Silent prayer is then a fight at every moment, where, each time the name is repeated, it is necessary to take oneself again in hand and to bring oneself back in the presence of God.

(page 124)

I understand the author’s (or translator’s) use of ‘struggle’ to describe this prayer, however, I am not entirely sure it is the most helpful image. “while the struggle is real, it is at the same time delightful” he says. Which seems to capture the balance better. I prefer to think of this as a serious business, a work. And like all hard work it is deeply satisfying; often most when most difficult.

It is always different after silence

Some time in 2013 a large group of headteachers came to visit Trinity, the school where I was Head in Lewisham. We had been practising Mindfulness as a school for three years. One of the places we used silence most effectively was in the Restorative Meetings that replaced sanctions on poor behaviour. One Year 11 (15-16 year old) pupils was describing this to the group and how when things became stuck in those meetings often someone suggests a time of Mindfulness using a five minute sand timer: “It is always,” she said, “different after the silence.”

Silence changes things. More importantly silence changes us. It make us more loving, more able to be attentive to others, to children, partners, those we minister to and with. As Gueullette so clearly shows silence isn’t the only way of prayer. It need not replace other forms of prayer and worship but take place alongside them in our lives.

Jack has been practising silent prayer in this way for almost 18 months now, “It has changed my life,” he says. It is always different after silence.

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