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Pastors returning to silence to hear, reach God
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An outdoor garden at Grace Episcopal Church is used by many as a place of quiet meditation and prayer. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham remembers spending time on the banks of Lake Chicot in southeast Arkansas in order to find a little quiet, a little silence, as he was growing up. Sometimes, he simply went into the woods near his home.

“I’ve always been drawn to this question of how transformative silence can be,” said Higginbotham, rector at Grace Episcopal Church. “It’s always been something in my life that I needed.”

That’s why contemplative prayer is something he practices on a daily basis. This type of prayer, Higginbotham said, is focused more on silence and listening for God’s voice, instead of asking God for things — how most of modern culture imagines prayer.

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The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville. He can be reached at stuart@gracechurchgainesville.org

He said contemplative prayer is “grounded in the Biblical tradition of silence, stillness and solitude” and “nurtures a deeper awareness of God’s presence in our lives so that the way we live in the world is transformed through compassion.”

Prayer and contemplation can sometimes best be achieved by physically and mentally cloistering ourselves, according to another local pastor.

“We really do need to take that pattern from Jesus himself and go away, go into our rooms and quiet ourselves and find ways to experience the richness of what silence can actually offer us.”

The Rev. Carolyn Clifton, associate pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, recently helped to lead her church through four weeks of centering prayer during Advent. Centering prayer is a discipline that often leads to contemplative prayer, she said.

“The benefit of it is to find within yourself a center-place in God so that that becomes the place that you live out of,” Clifton said. “In my mind, it’s how you achieve the praying without ceasing, because it becomes a way of living.”

Higginbotham said the original idea of contemplative prayer came from Jesus, who demonstrated it when he went into the desert to fast and pray after being baptized. He said it was also evident when Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to be alone and pray before his crucifixion.

Higginbotham mentioned part of the verse Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”

“It’s a pattern in Jesus’ own life and one that he encourages his disciples to have, to take moments to actually go and contemplate,” Higginbotham said.

Oftentimes, when Higginbotham enters his time of contemplative prayer, he said he is reminded of poverty. His time of being silent helps him understand the things he truly needs and the things he only wants. He said it also helps him make decisions. In order to not make “rash decisions,” Higginbotham said it’s important to be quiet — something “the church as a whole” could benefit from.

“Taking time each day to sit in silence and pay attention to what rises up — what fears, what concerns, what hopes, what dreams — it reorients the entire way I see my life,” Higginbotham said.

Although it’s a practice that has been demonstrated in the Bible, Higginbotham said it was lost somewhere along the way. Throughout seminary, he said he started studying many different traditions of Christian culture, and he wanted to know more. He ended up doing his doctoral thesis on the subject of contemplative prayer and is working to help his parish and others know more about it. Grace Episcopal is hosting a Mindful Silence Retreat at the church 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 12.

“The truth is, where it was lost was when the practice of Christian faith became conflated with political structures of culture,” Higginbotham said. “It depends on where you want to put your focus, and I think that’s really the challenge we’re seeing right now.”

Through centering prayer, Clifton said the focus can be placed on God, which in turn, will help how individuals see the world.

“If you’re centered in God, then it changes how you interact with the person in front of you, or the news you hear on TV or social media or whatever,” Clifton said.

The prevalence of those things on TV or social media may be part of the reason centering prayer is becoming more widespread and contemplative prayer is returning to churches in the United States.

“Everything is so competitive,” Higginbotham said. “It just feels cutthroat. And the toxic political environment, economic uncertainty, real concrete issues in people's’ lives, what does it mean to actually take time out and sit and pay attention to your thoughts? At the end of the day, that’s what we’re called to do is to recognize God’s presence in our lives and recognize God’s presence in everyone else's lives.”

Higginbotham said the unique thing about contemplative prayer is that it can be done in any denomination, though. He said “it is like a river that flows underneath denominations.” People from many different backgrounds can identify with contemplative prayer.

“The practice of contemplative prayer actually brings diverse groups of people together, which I think is a really important piece of the conversation,” Higginbotham said. “The practice actually shows that we can pray alongside each other.”

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Gainesville First United Methodist Church associate pastor Carolyn Clifton places the mark of the cross on parishioners Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018 during Ash Wednesday service in the church chapel. - photo by Scott Rogers
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