SERMON: On God alone my soul in stillness waits

‘On God alone my soul in stillness waits.’

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley

by Andrew McKearney on 10 April 2019.

It’s quite common, at least initially, for our prayer life to involve a lot of words – praying for others, using set prayers, learning some of them off by heart, and perhaps just telling the Lord all that’s going on in our life. It’s the kind of praying that some of us may have been lucky enough to be taught on our mother’s knee, and it’s like learning a language.

The other place where we learn this language of prayer is here in church. In the liturgy of the church we use words, we say prayers, we sing hymns, we recite creeds. And while there’s also movement, colour, ritual, symbolism and sacraments, nevertheless words predominate – and by using them we learn the language of prayer.

Having learnt this language at home and in church, Christ’s invitation is for us to give it a go for ourselves:

​‘But whenever you pray,’ Jesus says in the Sermon on

the Mount, ‘go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.’

We mustn’t dress up any of the other things that we do, good and valuable as they may be, and call them prayer. Prayer involves going into our room, shutting the door and praying to our Father who is in secret.

I suspect we all have different ways of avoiding this!

For many years I’ve set aside a few days each year and spent time in a retreat house or a religious community – it’s a good thing for someone like me to do and I’ve always loved going on retreat!

Sometimes there’s been a theme to these retreats and a speaker who’s given two or three talks during the day. There have been services to attend, Morning and Evening Prayer, a Eucharist and Compline. Meals have punctuated the day, which together with the services and the talks has meant that much of the day was taken care of!

To fill the remaining gaps in the day I used to take a great pile of theology books, maybe 6 or 8! It’s another thing I love doing – reading theology, and surely this too is a good thing for someone like me to do!

So by the end of one of these retreats, how had I responded to Christ’s invitation to go into my room, shut the door and pray to my Father who is in secret?

I’d certainly set aside time to be go on retreat! I’d even gone into my room and shut the door! And what I’d then done was read and read and read! And at the end of the retreat a measure of how good the retreat had been was the number of books that I’d managed to read!

But had I prayed to my Father who is in secret? As I said, we all have different ways of avoiding this! And my way was to read theology books!

Not surprisingly, over the years I’d read quite a few, including ones about prayer! It was something I felt very drawn to do. I wanted to give it a go!

I’d learnt that what I needed to do was work out when, where and how to pray. When is the best time, where is the best place, what would help me? So I decided that when I next went on retreat what I would try and do was turn up in the chapel maybe five minutes early for a service or a talk, and spend those five minutes giving it a go – praying!

I don’t mind admitting it was a struggle! Nothing much seemed to happen! It felt very different from the other forms of prayer that I was used to. My mind wandered all over the place! To help focus my mind I started to use the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’. I repeated it slowly, came back to it when my mind wandered off, and gradually I moved on from five minutes and tried ten!

What I also found as I persevered, was not only the need for some kind of phrase to focus my mind such as the Jesus Prayer but also that some of the phrases from the psalms spoke my kind of language!

Of course there are all sorts of ideas and emotions expressed in the psalms that are initially quite off-putting. This morning’s psalm is classic example! The middle verses, verses 3 and 4, go down a well-worn path!

But I didn’t let that bother me! I followed my heart!

I stayed with those phrases that I was drawn to – and one of those was in this psalm – Psalm 62!

The refrain ‘wait on God in stillness’ expressed what this newer way of praying was all about for me!

The psalm begins:

​‘On God alone my soul in stillness waits.’

And a little later this is repeated:

​‘Wait on God alone in stillness, O my soul.’

Waiting on God in stillness is not just a refrain in this psalm, but if you look out for it you’ll find it in a number of psalms!

If we persevere with this more personal form of prayer, many people have found that the words become fewer, the experience simpler and the stillness deeper.

​‘On God alone my soul in stillness waits.’