Contemplative Prayer, or How to Play with a Flying Squirrel
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | April 4, 2019Hi friends, one of my Lenten practices this year has been to spend some time every day in contemplative silence and stillness, ideally a solid twenty minutes each day. This has never come easily to me, and this Lent has been no different. If my ‘success’ at this Lenten practice were recorded in a fitness app on my phone, it would probably say, “Personal Best: 18 mostly contemplative minutes. Longest Daily Prayer Streak: 3 days.”
It’s a discipline I resist, actively and passively, but it’s also one of whose importance I am convinced, if for no other reason than because wiser souls than mine have told me it’s important.
I think part of why I resist prayerful stillness and silence so relentlessly is that, of all the ways one could pray, this one perhaps renders us the most passive. It’s rare that anything ever happens in stillness. At least when I pray the Daily Office, I’m saying words and reading the bible and bowing and doing church things! But simply to sit (not even kneeling?!) and let my mind wander without attaching myself to any of those wanderings…wait, why am I doing this again? This is a waste of time.
And yet this contemplative practice (or ones like it) has been of fundamental importance to some of the greatest Christian practitioners in history, from the desert mothers and fathers of the early church to Thomas Merton to Sarah Coakley to some of the regular, unsung saints I meet all the time. Why is that?
As I am still very much a beginner with this practice, I don’t really know. My best guess is that contemplative silence returns us to the most basic ontological truth of being a human person: we are here on God’s terms, not ours. If nothing ‘happens’ in prayer, well, that’s God’s prerogative. Besides, because prayer is concerned with the deepest level of our being, the bright core of us where God alone lives, it’s not clear why we should expect to be aware of what change God is working in us, anyway.
All this is on my mind as we cross the halfway mark of Lent. I still don’t like being still; I am still a beginner at all this; and yet I can see it on the faces of so many people whose words and wisdom I trust that twenty’ish minutes of contemplative prayer each day is spiritually good for us in a profound way.
A couple weeks ago, I had an experience that has helped me put some words on what might be happening in contemplative prayer. Lucy and I were in Alabama, visiting our godson, Thompson. He’s six, and it had been a while since we’d gotten to see him. As part of our catching up, we heard about all the major life events that have happened since the last time we saw him: lost teeth, flag football games, new dance moves learned or invented, etc. One major life event since the last time we saw Thompson is that his family has gotten a new pet: her name is Roo, and she’s a Southern Flying Squirrel.
This is big news. Roo was still young when they found her hiding in their church (Thompson’s dad, Corey, is a priest), and it wasn’t clear if her family was still around. So, they took her to the vet, learned she was healthy but maybe got lost from her squirrel family, and then adopted her.
Now Roo lives in a big cage in their living room, replete with numerous hidey holes and lots of wooden climbing things. Roo is tiny, and because she is so tiny, Thompson and his older brother explained, there are rules about how you can play with her. These are the rules:
First, you bring Roo’s cage into the small hallway in the middle of the house.
Second, you close all the doors leading into and out of the hallway.
Third, you grab lots of towels from the closet, and you wedge them under the doors. Roo is so tiny she could crawl under the doors and get into places that might not be safe for her to go.
Fourth, everyone sits very quietly on the floor, and then you open the door to Roo’s cage. You’re not allowed to reach in and grab Roo. You can’t force her to play with you; you have to sit very quietly in the hallway, and let her come to you.
So there we were: Thompson, his brother, their dad, two other friends of ours, Lucy, and me—all sitting in total silence on the floor of the hallway, waiting on this flying squirrel to hop out of her cage and find one of us.
For a while, nothing happened. But eventually, Roo hopped out of her cage, and ran into the corner, between Corey and the wall. A moment later, she appeared on Corey’s shoulder, and then on top of Corey’s head. We laughed quietly, at once thrilled with the prospect that Roo might alight on us next, but also trying not to break our shared silence, the spell that makes it safe for Roo to play with us.
Roo disappeared from Corey’s head, then reappeared on top of her cage. Another disappearance and then—ooh!—I felt her tiny claws climbing up the back of my shirt. From my mouth erupted a sound I will likely never be able to repeat (a mix of surprise, excitement, and anxiety, all suppressed into an awkward kazoo chirp as I tried not to frighten Roo away). I involuntarily hunched over, my face to the ground. Roo climbed up my back until she perched on the back of my neck, sniffing the air and looking around at all the laughing faces.
We played this game a while longer, Roo vanishing along the baseboards only to reappear on a shoulder or on top of her own cage, and all the while we never spoke in anything but short, expectant whispers. After maybe twenty minutes, Corey scooped Roo back into her cage, we stood, opened all the doors, and the spell was over. Of the seven of us crammed into the tiny hallway, Roo had alighted on maybe four of us.
This experience with Thompson and his family and their new pet has become a kind of parable for me for what prayerful stillness and silence are like. The rules are quite simple: go into the innermost corridor of yourself, and close the doors of distraction. Even wedge towels under the gaps of the doors, so you can’t hear your phone buzz with emails or texts. Sit very quietly, being very still, and wait for the Holy Spirit to come out. She’s been with us this whole time, but we tend to be so loud or frantic that we won’t let Her touch us. When She does come out, we may be aware of Her presence, or we may not. She moves on Her own terms; She is not a tame squirrel.
But when She does land on you—ooh!—it’s a strange sensation, so strange that you’d almost rather see Her land on other people’s heads than feel the wild intimacy of Her claws up your neck.
What a strange but wonderful gift for God to make a home with us here, to build into the architecture of a human life a quiet hallway in which the Divine Wildness might leap and scurry freely about. It is a brave and necessary thing to enter the quiet hallway of prayer, however much we may resist it, a brave and necessary thing to offer God’s Wildness our fullest and most patient attention. It is brave because God is wild and does not simply appear when we call; God resists our attempts to force Her out of hiding. It is necessary because it is natural: we are people of the Incarnation, which is to say that our bodies, sole to crown, are the ecosystem in which the Holy Spirit has chosen to play.