Looking in the Gospels, particularly for the path of wisdom or the way of Jesus, you will notice multiple references to Jesus’ consistent “custom” of “rising before dawn to go out to a deserted place to pray,” of “going to the mountain to pray,” and even of “spending the night in prayer” (Luke 22:39). And you would most certainly notice the relevance and importance of his teaching on inner, wordless prayer.
The first-century gospel audience would have sat up and immediately noticed this particular practice of Jesus — of consistently making time to be in silence and solitude with God and often at unusual times and in unusual places. Master storytellers that they are, the Gospel writers must have wanted their listeners to notice and take note of the ongoing contemplative pause/action rhythm of Jesus’ life.
In her book Too Deep for Words, spiritual director Thelma Hall says, “In Jesus’ life his prayer and action follow one another in a rhythm which seems as constant as the inhaling and exhaling of breathing. … We cannot separate this prayer from [Jesus’] works, nor fail to see it is the very source of his teachings, his [g]ospel, and his mission.” So Jesus shows us a way — indeed, Jesus was showing us what earliest Christians called the Way — to “put on the mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5, Rom 13:14).
And this is good news.
Because as much as we Western Christians hear continuous exhortations from Sunday morning pulpits to “be like Jesus,” the church simply has not been very good at teaching us how we should attain to such a revolutionary call. Most of us were never taught about the call of metanoia or the practices that can equip us to shift our awareness and to see more expansively, beyond our usual way of seeing. So most of us were never shown a particular path or practice that would equip us to, like Jesus, react less, respond with compassion and equanimity, speak truth to power in love, and see with the eyes of our heart.
We have often been left on our own to figure out how to be like Jesus. And on our own, the journey for some of us has been more than daunting as we inevitably run into all the ways that we get in our own way and then begin to wonder if obeying this call to be like Jesus is in fact even possible. We wonder: Is it really possible to bring down the chronic stress levels of our nonstop schedules and move past our egoic overreactions? Is it really possible to move past our own ingrained unconscious bad habits and our good/bad, like/dislike dualistic thinking so that we might actually be able to attend to what is necessary to get us to slow down, to see bigger, and to transform our souls, our psyches, our relationships, and the health of our planet?
I have come to believe that the answer is a resounding yes and that the answer has come in the fullness of time.
At this inflection point, religion and science converge in profoundly hopeful ways: Neuroscientists are discovering how contemplative practices rewire the brain toward calm and equanimity at the same time that well-known scholars of the Christian contemplative tradition are being sought out by growing numbers of Christians and non-Christians for their practical wisdom on the very real, transformative power of Jesus’ hidden-in-plain-view contemplative practices.
But which practices, you may ask, and where are they in the Gospels? Jesus gives us the first clue in his teachings on prayer beyond words.
The mainstay of Jesus’ teachings on the power of prayer beyond words is his “inner room” discourse in the Gospel of Matthew. Scholars have pointed to this passage over the centuries as Jesus’ primary directive to his followers to pray contemplatively, beyond words or thoughts or feelings, as the way to connect with, attune to, and be transformed by divine presence: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:5–6).
At first glance, this passage does not appear to be a directive on quiet interior prayer. But I love how, once again, the original Greek brings clarity to the Gospel writers’ intention for us here: Matthew 6:5–6 is often called the tameion passage because tameion is the Greek word that has been translated here into the word “room.” Tameion more precisely means an “inner chamber,” a “secret chamber,” a “private room,” or — my favorite — “the inner room of you.”
For several reasons, most obviously because most first-century Galilean homes did not generally have inner rooms or private rooms in their residences, church scholars understood that Jesus was not referring here to an actual physical place. They understood Jesus to be making a crucially important metaphorical statement here, so that tameion is understood as an inner spiritual reality, our divine indwelling, what my friend Oksana once described as her “monastery of the heart,” the continual return to which can cultivate our innate expansive and inclusive way of seeing and being to which Jesus calls us — metanoia.
Centering Prayer founder Thomas Keating actually thought of Jesus’ tameion directive as Jesus’ “formula” for “waking up to the essence of who we are.” In The Inner Room he says:
In Jesus’ formula for waking up to who we are ... he suggests entering this inner room. Then he says, “shut the door,” meaning stop the interior dialogue. Get free or detached from our over-identifications with our thoughts, experiences, past life, future hopes. … [Here we are] in the process of awakening to the divine image within us, where faith, hope, charity, the divine indwelling are sitting, so to speak, in our unconscious, gathering dust, waiting to be used. And they can’t come into full action until our over-identification with the false self and its programs for happiness have been reduced.
Gospel accounts show us that Jesus himself lived this contemplative, prayer-beyond-words, “inner room” practice as he often ventures out alone for predawn “lonely prayer” or, “as is his custom,” he retreats up the mountain or to the garden alone even in the busiest times of his ministry, sometimes being in prayer through the night. We can safely assume, as scholars have through the ages, that Jesus is not speaking out loud to God all night long.
Indeed, when we notice Jesus’ times of spiritual renewal interspersed as they are throughout the arc of his ministry — from his teaching, healing, and feeding of the four and five thousand followers, to his last words at the Last Supper, in Gethsemane, and on the cross — we begin to notice the definitive pattern in Jesus’ practice as a kind of flowing back-and-forth rhythm: There is a continual pausing to let go (what scholars call kenosis, or emptying) of egoic attachments, fear, judgment, or expectations and then a returning to the Divine Presence again and again: Let go. Return. Let go. Return.
This is the rhythm and pattern of Jesus’ practice. And this is the rhythm and pattern of the Christian meditation practice called Centering Prayer. And as we now know, this is the rhythm and pattern that brain science tells us actually rewires neural pathways in the regions of our brain that are related to awareness, compassion, and empathy.
Let go. Return. Let go. Return.
Adapted from Practicing the Pause: Jesus’ Contemplative Practice, New Brain Science, and What It Means to Be Fully Human (2023) by Caroline Oakes. Used with permission of Broadleaf Books, an imprint of 1517 Media.