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The Science of Silence: Prayer’s Hidden Power

The rich history of Hesychastic prayer has been the subject of recent research. What is this type of prayer, and how might it benefit Latter-day Saints?

On this National Day of Prayer, Latter-day Saints have an opportunity to embrace the Savior’s plea for His followers to be one. The spirit of this petition has been issued anew through the prophet’s recent admonitions to become peacemakers. Latter-day Saints can become peacemakers by uniting in prayer with those from other Christian traditions. As emerging scientific research on prayer is beginning to indicate, we can learn much from our brothers and sisters throughout the Christian world. 

Accumulating Truth

Latter-day Saint theology possesses an uncommonly inclusive approach to truth. Brigham Young taught, “Be willing to receive the truth, let it come from whom it may…” Furthermore, the 13th Article of Faith declares that “we follow in the admonition of Paul … We believe all things … we hope all things … If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

Certainly, prayer is one of the most lovely and praiseworthy things on earth. Specifically, the tradition of contemplative prayer within Orthodox Christianity, called Hesychastic prayer, has a long and beautiful history. The word “Hesychasm” comes from the Greek word for “quiet.” Hesychastic prayer aims to cultivate a deep inward quiet by repeating and pondering these words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Pondering these words can be accompanied by slow, intentional breathing or bringing the attention inward to the heart. 

The emphasis of Hesychastic prayer on cultivating inward quiet is designed to help us hear God’s voice more clearly in our lives. Remember the prophet Elijah, who heard God speaking to him not in fire or thunder but in a quiet, still, small voice. Given the Latter-day Saint understanding of the importance of personal revelation, we should value practices that help us to ponder and better hear the voice of God speaking to us in the stillness of our hearts.  

Prayer is one of the most lovely and praiseworthy things.

Memorized prayers are often discouraged in Latter-day Saint tradition to adhere to the Savior’s counsel in Matthew 6:7 to avoid “vain repetitions.” President Nelson defined vain repetitions as “recitations given ‘to be seen of men.’” Vain repetitions involve reciting words without meaning or praying to impress an audience. But this leaves much space for contemplative prayer. Scripted prayers are not necessarily a form of vain repetitions and are a part of many Latter-day Saint ordinances, such as the sacrament. Contemplative prayer, as opposed to vain repetition, involves praying in private to connect with God by pondering and meditating on the meaning of what you are saying. How often do we, as Latter-day Saints, inadvertently engage in vain repetitions in our prayers instead of incorporating the power of stillness, contemplation, and connection with the Divine that we can learn from our Orthodox brothers and sisters that practice Hesychastic prayer?

Cultivating Personal Peace and Rest

As a result of practicing intentional, contemplative prayer, we can cultivate personal peace and find more rest. President Nelson said, 

“My plea to you this morning is to find rest from the intensity, uncertainty, and anguish of this world by overcoming the world … Let Him know through your prayers and your actions that you are serious about overcoming the world … Each day, record the thoughts that come to you as you pray; then follow through diligently … I promise you greater peace, confidence, joy, and yes, rest.”

Many Latter-day prophets prescribe the power of contemplative prayer to promote peace and rest. A Latter-day Saint synonym for contemplative prayer is “ponder.” The Guide to the Scriptures describes pondering this way, “To meditate and think deeply, often upon the scriptures or other things of God. When combined with prayer, pondering the things of God may bring revelation and understanding.” 

Pondering meaningful scriptures and prayers can enhance our devotional practices. Latter-day Saint prophets and apostles repeatedly urge the saints to memorize important phrases or scriptures. Elder Richard G. Scott said, “A memorized scripture becomes an enduring friend that is not weakened with the passage of time … [M]emorizing scriptures is like filling a cabinet with friends, values, and truths that can be called upon anytime, anywhere in the world.” LDS Seminary students are encouraged to memorize “Doctrinal Mastery” scriptures. Pondering and memorizing virtuous phrases or noteworthy scriptures is part of Latter-day Saint theology and practice. Do we fully embrace the doctrine of contemplative prayer and pondering found without and within our religious tradition? We can cultivate more inner peace and rest by filling the cabinet of our minds with the prayer of the heart and the things of God.

Indeed, emerging research links contemplative prayer practices with a myriad of benefits. Hesychastic practitioners experience more peace, are better able to handle interpersonal conflict, experience a deeper connection and trust in God, and have more personal insight. Furthermore, the association between inner stillness and well-being is being scientifically investigated in ongoing prayer science studies at Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where contemplative prayer practices such as Hesychastic prayer and “Centering Prayer” are being respectively studied. In short, science is beginning to connect rich theological wisdom and contemplative prayer practices to measurable benefits for believers.

Humility & Compassion 

The words of the Jesus prayer are simple yet meaningful, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” There is a reason why this particular prayer is the focus of Orthodox Hesychastic prayer—it’s intuitive and present in the heart of every repentant believer. How often have we said this same prayer but with different words? At some point in the disciple’s life, we realize that we all need grace and atonement from Jesus Christ. 

Latter-day Saint scripture proclaims that we are all beggars before God. King Benjamin declared, “Behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God.”

Cultivate personal peace and find more rest.

Furthermore, King Benjamin declares that we are all indebted to God for His goodness and grace. The knowledge of our dependence on God should humble us and expand our compassion for others. It can unite us as we eliminate pride and the distorted thinking that we are better than others. Research confirms this—those who feel indebted to God have a richer spirituality, give more to others in need, are more humble, have less perfectionism, feel more empathy and charity to others, and are more willing to accept God’s grace. After we internalize and accept Christ’s atonement and realize how much He has done for us, we naturally desire to extend that grace to others. Our research of Latter-day Saint exemplars substantiates this phenomenon.

Given, then, what we know in the light of the Restoration about the liberality of God’s goodness, how can we not join our Christian Orthodox brothers and sisters on this National Day of Prayer with hearts full of love for our Savior and reverently pray with them these words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” And in receiving an answer to that petition, we can find personal peace and rest and grow in humility and compassion. We can become more committed peacemakers who desire to extend the grace we’ve received to others. Indeed, in his recent address, President Nelson declared, “When we humble ourselves before God and pray with all the energy of our hearts, God will grant us charity.”

About the author

Jenae Nelson

Jenae Nelson is a remote postdoctoral researcher at Baylor University and for the Neurospirituality research program at the Center of Brain Circuit Therapeutics at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School..
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