Contact Us

Creating Soul-Space

30 November, 1999

Donal O’Leary stresses the importance of giving time each day to creating “soul space” in our lives. Readers may have noticed that I often promote the wisdom of spending ten or fifteen minutes each day in silence. In reality, I suppose I cannot overestimate the benefits for body and soul, of pursuing this habit. It […]

Donal O’Leary stresses the importance of giving time each day to creating “soul space” in our lives.

Readers may have noticed that I often promote the wisdom of spending ten or fifteen minutes each day in silence. In reality, I suppose I cannot overestimate the benefits for body and soul, of pursuing this habit. It is amazingly therapeutic and health-giving. It may well be the most important few minutes of your day. I can only continue to recommend it to you, our readers.

At one level it may well seem to be a very dubious way of starting the day, or ending it. In a society that is always looking for profits and measurable successes, this kind of meditation must look like foolishness. There are no tangible results. It does not lessen your list of ‘things to do’. It doesn’t bring in more money. The children still fight with each other around you.

But at another level, our lives may well be transformed by this practice. There is an over-all sense of freedom, of peace and of joy. Only gradually do you begin to realise that something is changing within you. You notice a drop, over the weeks, in your anxiety level. You notice, too, that your attitude to your relentless work schedule is, changing. Even the most pragmatic, religionless but highly successful entrepreneurs believe in daily meditation. It costs nothing; it can be experienced anywhere, and everyone can do it.

Yet, it is easy to be discouraged. To spend some time each morning and/or evening doing nothing but breathing, stopping thinking, simply being, is a difficult challenge. Most of us are more comfortable when there is noise and activity going on around us. We want the music to be playing, the TV to be switched on, the conversation to be interesting, and the newspapers and magazines to be in our hands.

Even when it comes to praying, we find it easier to go to Church, to pray together out loud, to celebrate the Eucharist, to march for Jesus. These are all, of course, very good things to do. But taking time out to simply be, in total silence, with the One who loves us unconditionally, is a bridge too far for many. It is also a bridge too far for many institutionalised denominations and religions. The art of contemplation, the grace of this kind of prayer, can often seem to short circuit the more formal, ritualistic traditions of the organised Churches. They see it as a kind of DIY spirituality!

There is a sort of secret here. Those who persist in doing meditation know how differently it makes them feel. During the last year I must have addressed about one thousand people who contemplate. These are people from all walks of life, young and old, professional and retired, incredibly busy or more relaxed, who spend twenty minutes each morning and evening in stillness and silence.

There is no special discipline, no esoteric formula, no secret code. You simply sit there in the presence of Someone who looks at you with great joy. That is all. You surrender yourself to that ‘gaze of love’. You don’t need to do anything; just waste time with God. “All I want you to do,” God is saying to us, “is to let me love you.” As you read this, many of you will be thinking ‘what rubbish!’ But, please let me finish.

Recently I’ve been running myself ragged. I’m too busy to pray. But the busier I am, the more I need to find time to meditate. I get up early in the morning and know that I must make sure of those minutes of silence, like I ask you to do.

The first problem, then, that we have with prayer is that we’re too busy and too preoccupied to make time for it. A friend writes: “If you had squalling children around you, first thing in the morning, you’d soon know why we don’t do it. Always we’re too busy, too stressed, too tired, or too preoccupied to pray. We rise early, groan as our alarm clocks startle us from sleep, rush through breakfast, get things ready for the day, fight crowds and traffic en route to work, settle into a task that’s demanding and draining, swallow down a quick lunch, end the work-day tired, commute back home, throw something in the oven, tend to the needs of the children who are just as tired, hungry and restless as we are, and then, as often as not, have another meeting or event to turn up to, before arriving back home to fall into bed…. “

There’s no arguing with that. My friend is right. In the face of all she writes, it seems sometimes an impossible expectation to find time to pray. That is why we must make a clear decision about it. We need to impose a certain discipline on ourselves, because when we sit or kneel in prayer, so many of our natural cravings feel starved and begin to protest. One of my favourite spiritual writers keeps insisting that restlessness, and the drive towards efficiency, are the great impediments to prayer.

But there’s another important obstacle too. Because we are human, we operate through our senses. Normally, we can actually see the people we like: we can touch them and listen to them; we can share our thoughts and feelings with them; they fill up our senses in the most satisfying way. God’s reality, however, is not like that. It is not tangible like our other relationships. There’s no hugging and laughing, no fighting and making up, no tears and no physically-felt heartaches.

In relating to God, in talking to God, in being still before God, in surrendering ourselves in trust into the embrace of God, there is a huge and difficult challenge. This is unfamiliar territory – and there is no actual physical reassurance that anything is happening. So it’s easy to find ourselves getting sceptical, bored, doubtiing, distracted, and anxious about the value of our commitment to time, spent in this way.

“What we experience in prayer,” my friend wrote, “is just as real as the physical world, but we need to persevere with it, in spite of our doubts, in order to believe that this is a worthwhile endeavour. We give up too soon. No one says that prayer is easy. There seems to be some kind of strange conspiracy against it. But, believe me, your heart will tell you that, in the end, the decision to pray each day is the best decision you will ever make.”

Article Credits
This article first appeared in the Leeds Catholic Post and in the June 2005 edition of PRE (Pastoral Research Exchange).