Before Christian leaders had even agreed on which books to include in the biblical canon, monks throughout Egypt and Palestine were practising a simple way of praying as they worked with their hands each day. This early Christian prayer practice called “quies” (meaning “rest”) helped each monk use the teachings of Scripture to rest more fully in God.
Thomas Merton wrote about this prayer: “Quies is a silent absorption aided by the soft repetition of a lone phrase of the Scriptures – the most popular being the prayer of the Publican: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!’ In a shortened form this prayer became “Lord have mercy” (Kyrie eleison) – repeated interiorly hundreds of times a day until it became as spontaneous and instinctive as breathing” (The Wisdom of the Desert, New Directions, p. 22).
This practice of resting prayer isn’t the same thing as chanting or reciting a mantra. Resting prayer or contemplative prayer uses scripture or a “sacred word” to help us let go of our distracting thoughts that keep us from being aware of God. If you can let go of your thoughts and remain present for God without a scripture verse or phrase, then there’s no need to repeat it. The teachers of contemplative prayer, such as Thomas Keating, emphasise that we return to the word gently and only as needed.
Keep in mind, if you aren’t used to stilling your mind before God, that this type of prayer may not be very restful at first! This is normal. Richard Rohr assures us that the first steps forward in this type of prayer can be difficult, if not excruciating. All our fears, anxieties, and distractions will immediately rise to the surface once you let your mind rest without distraction. This is part of the design of resting prayer – facing our anxious thoughts and then seeking God’s loving presence. As you learn to rest in God’s loving presence, your anxious thoughts will slip away.
What will go through your mind this holiday season while you drive through traffic, visit the store, cook meals, clean the house, or wash the dishes? Perhaps you could dwell on how busy you are, how much you’re dreading certain conversations with relatives, or how much you’re concerned about your bank account. Perhaps you could play a podcast, some music, or the news. However, what if you could begin to rest in God by faith?
“Lord have mercy,” puts us in our place and reminds us that God’s restoration is here for us today. The story of “righteous” tax collector shows us that God isn’t turned off by our imperfections. No charade is necessary for God’s mercy – only honesty. We are always in need of God’s mercy, and so one of the purest ways we can pray is to rest in God’s mercy day in, day out.
As you grow comfortable with this type of prayer, a particular scripture verse or phrase from scripture may stand out as more helpful. The specifics of the words you recite or meditate on are not as important as your intention to rest before God and to lay hold of his mercy.
If you struggle to settle down anxious thoughts or don’t know where to begin with prayer during this busy season, this simple repetition of Scripture can help restore quiet and bring a greater awareness of God. Since the holidays may be one of the most challenging seasons to pray, you may especially see benefits if you stick with the quies longer than the holidays.