On the first day of my writing class last semester, I called each student by name and paused on a familiar one—I couldn’t place his face. I must have looked puzzled, because the student volunteered an explanation. He was in one of my Zoom classes during the pandemic. We had already spent a semester together. Despite my repeated requests for students to show their faces, he had never turned on his camera or spoke in our virtual class. Connecting with him had felt impossible.
Illustration by Adam Cruft
It was a peculiar feeling for me as a teacher to know a student by his name and by the words he wrote without actually knowing him face-to-face. There was a gap in our ability to relate, so every time he slid into a desk in my classroom this term, I felt grateful for another chance to connect with him and his work in person.
I suspect that many of us have experienced this disconnect with others, and at times with God. So often, it feels as if God hides behind an impenetrable barrier despite our requests that He reveal Himself. This has been especially true for me over the past 18 months, as crisis after crisis has rocked my family. Connecting with the Lord is a struggle, yet I desperately crave His presence.
In her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Ruth Haley Barton writes, “We are starved for intimacy, to see and feel and know God in the very cells of our being. We are starved for rest … We are starved for quiet, to hear the sound of sheer silence that is the presence of God himself.” I felt this ache for God on a cellular level, just as Barton suggests, so I decided to follow her advice and focus on a daily practice of silence, contemplation, and stillness. It took some time to establish, but a year later, I’ve settled into a routine that quiets my mind.
First, I gather a few things in a small basket—my Bible, various journals, a small wooden cross, and whatever spiritual growth book I’m reading—and carry it to my back deck as the sun rises over our one great oak. Bird chatter often punctuates the silence, but otherwise, God and I are alone without interruption.
Holding the wooden cross in my hand as a physical reminder, I sit in silence for 10 minutes and allow myself to feel the Lord’s love. This small practice has honed my ability to sense and experience His presence. Centering my thoughts on God’s love every morning in silence is a rhythm I treasure and look forward to daily.
Then when the sun kisses the top of the oak tree, I reach into the basket for my prayer journal, where I write down all the ways I sense God’s nearness in those morning moments. I scribble notes through tears, joy, anxiety, and wonder. Every morning, I arrive in prayer with the expectation that God will be there, and if my heart doubts and my mind forgets, I return to the truth I’ve written in my journal.
It's taken a year for this to become a grounding and disciplined practice in my life, but I’ve learned silence is a spacious place where God is free to move—and I am free from my usual frenzy of overthinking, distraction, and activity. I can’t think my way into experiencing God’s love, peace, or presence. Turning off this part of my overactive brain for a few minutes every day has been a relief.
Madeleine L’Engle says, “Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or prayer.” My laundry list of issues that need God’s attention frequently makes an appearance during this time of silent prayer. But I know He will meet me in a way that I don’t experience when praying at God, rather than listening to Him. It turns out that the greatest inhibition to my experiencing His felt presence was my own distraction, not His. The real challenge is to make space daily so that quiet connection with God becomes the norm rather than the exception.