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. 6:6).
I’ve always understood this verse as a reminder that prayer was private instead of trying to impress others. When we see this verse in connection with the ones previously, that makes sense. However, I have discovered that as I look at the words from the original language, I see a more nuanced understanding.
We tend to understand words used in Scripture through our own cultural lens. However, our understanding of words changes within our own lifetimes. Think about the slang words used in older generations versus younger generations. In addition, a word in one language doesn’t exactly match a word in another. Often times, part of the original meaning can be lost in translation. Part of the joy of even an elementary understanding of Greek is learning these differences.
In this passage, Matthew writes about Jesus instructing those close by him in how to pray. He uses a form of the word pray that suggests a form of praying for themselves. It is considered a middle voice which implies doing the action in a way that benefits the one praying.
Then he gives a command that is an appeal to their will. Go into your room, shut the door, and pray. Interestingly enough, the word used for room is a secret chamber, an inner room, a closet. Jesus is instructing his hearers to intentionally go into this inner chamber.
Jesus continues on telling his hearers that the Father is in this secret place and sees what is happening there. The word used for sees actually communicates a constant seeing that is viewed as a true reality. The word used for secret can also be translated as hidden. The same root word is used to describe the hiddenness of the treasure or pearl in Matt. 13:44-45. Here the hidden treasure describes the Kingdom of Heaven and is of great worth.
It seems to me that Jesus is instructing his hearers to a deeper understanding than going into a private place to pray. Maybe this private place is deep within their own soul. I have found this quiet form of praying more consistent to what I sense in these words of Matthew and in my own faith journey. This private place seems to be even beneath my own thoughts and words.
Contemplative prayer, or more specifically Centering Prayer, has become an important part of my daily rhythm. It is in accepting the invitation to become quiet in order to hear God, to experience God’s love for me. This goes beyond a particular request, to a place of trusting God to meet me in this quiet place.
It is an invitation to let go of my own agenda, my own need to protect myself, and my ideas of how to meet my own needs. We all desire to belong: to be seen, heard, believed in, and known. As we let go of trying to meet these innate desires ourselves, we can rest in the truth of God’s personal love for us. This goes beyond what I know in my rational mind and into a lived out experience in my soul.
How do we become quiet in prayer? If you have ever tried to be completely quiet, you know it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Try setting a timer for 5 minutes to get an idea of how difficult it is. Once you intend to be quiet, all the thoughts, once held back by the busyness of life, come to the surface. So in the noisiness of our intention to be quiet, gentleness is the approach. It is important to remember that being quiet in prayer or practicing Centering Prayer isn’t something to strive toward, quietness isn’t something to achieve, and there isn’t a path to do this “right.”
Centering prayer is a much larger topic than can be handled fully here. I will discuss it in future blogs but experiencing it with others is beneficial. We do cover the practice in my spiritual formation groups and Contemplative Prayer and Journaling Retreats.
Some people in my previous formation groups have shared that life slows down for them. Nothing changes on the outside but the slowness, the place of rest, is on the inside amidst the chaos of the world around them. I wonder if this is the reward or benefit of going into our inner chamber that Jesus spoke about.
I would love to hear your thoughts as you engage this practice.
I’ve been practicing contemplative prayer for about two years. For me, these practices include centering prayer, Lectio Divina, breath prayer, walking meditation, collage prayer, yoga, and the labyrinth. I have participated in spiritual formation groups and visit a spiritual director monthly. I’ve seen small bits of transformation in myself during this time as I gaze upon God and allow God to gaze upon me. These practices build depth, beauty, and enrich my spiritual life in ways that are difficult to translate into mere words.
In a spiritual formation group recently, we shared what the theme “take up your cross,” from Luke 9:18-27 meant to each of us. As Christians, we sometimes struggle with this concept, because we believe and somehow have been taught that these verses mean to deny ourselves of ourself, to deny our feelings, our desires, to always give or acquiesce our wishes for others. Over time, this can create anger and resentment, because deep down we know this is not truth.
I had operated this way for many years. I was “playing” a person, a role of what I thought I was supposed to be in order to be “Christian”, especially a “good Christian”. It even entered into what I perceived to be my role as a “Christian mother.” I did not understand then, that taking up my cross with that type of lens, meant giving up my True-Self, in other words, the person God made me to be. Outward behavior was priority, while the heart was ignored or buried. Upon sharing in my spiritual formation group, I acknowledged this struggle as part of my own. Then I began to share how I now understood the following verses.
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”
I had written my thoughts down when doing the study earlier in the week. I remember smiling to myself and feeling grateful for new insights, as I had read these verses hundreds of times before, but with my behavioral lens rather than God’s loving “you are enough” lens.
I now understood, when I try to “save my life”, I am working from a behavior focused lens, striving, achieving, not even aware of myself. For example, I tried to be a what I thought was the perfect parent or wife while ignoring the deep beauty of my inner self, the part of me connected to God simply because I am made in God's image. This is how I lose my life, how I lose my True Self. I am unaware of who I am, unaware of God. But if I let go, trust God, experience God, and “just be”, I will save my life, because of God’s immeasurable love.
It’s counter intuitive, especially for our American culture. The verse goes on to with “what good is it to gain the whole world” which is also about striving for and achieving our identity. This could be really anything that is shaped by how we want to be perceived by others; such as wealth, fame, success. This striving can even be the desire to be perceived as a “believer” or “strong” Christian. This gaining of the whole world represents building our ego-self and thus our False-Self. In the process, we lose our very selves and become divided or not whole.
What I love most about spiritual formation groups is the transformation and intimacy with God and each other that happens in our moments together. We find ourselves in a safe and sacred space, which allows us to be open and vulnerable. New depth and dimensions are discovered together. As we share with one another, our bond grows, our lens of God becomes a little clearer, and we experience God's gentle love as individuals and collectively. It’s beautiful to experience and behold.
My contemplative practices help me to learn to let go, to truly experience God, to be more self-aware and God-aware. By allowing spaciousness in my life, I’m free to open up to God in a way I never have before and God graciously, gently, and lovingly enters in.
So I've come to understand that picking up my cross is more about letting go rather than striving. After all, Jesus said, “For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” Matthew 11:30
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!