Twenty years ago, Ed Cyzewski left his Roman Catholic faith to become an evangelical. This led him to a hard-driving way of faith that required doing good things for God but left him stressed and anxious. Then he turned to ancient prayer and devotional practices that eased his anxiety and restored peaceful being.
In Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, Cyzewski — who has remained Protestant — demonstrates how these practices refocus him in contemplative directions. Because he has lived on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide, he is an able guide in helping us find deep wells in desert times throughout all regions of the Christian landscape.
Cyzewski grew up in a “toxic and restrictive” Catholic parish. After becoming a Baptist, “I made it a life goal to undermine Catholicism, which I viewed with anger, resentment and suspicion. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by evangelical voices that said Catholics aren’t ‘real’ Christians. But then something happened: my evangelical faith, which appeared to be so certain and enduring, crumbled.”
Ironically, Catholicism provided the remedy for his disillusionment. Immersing himself in the Catholic prayer tradition, he found relief from what he believes is a common evangelical problem — the anxiety that rises from worrying one can never do enough for God or be holy enough for God.
He laments an evangelical blind spot: “Evangelicals will travel across oceans to proclaim salvation by faith and the grace of God, but we generally lack spiritual practices that connect us with the transforming presence of God in daily life.”
The story of Cyzewski’s journey from Catholicism to evangelicalism and back to aspects of Catholicism is intriguing. Yet the deepest riches of this book are his simple and clear descriptions of the ancient practices that foster a sense of God’s presence in all of life.
Cyzewski writes: “Evangelicals can take a firehose approach to the Bible, focusing on quantity of verses read in each sitting rather than taking quality time to ponder a verse. It’s as if there’s some kind of potential or achievement we can unlock by reading more and more Scripture. While God can work with us however we practice, there is much to be gained by a slower, limited and more reflective approach to Scripture.”
He suggests lectio divina, or divine reading. One chooses a relatively short passage of Scripture and reads it slowly four times, either alone or in a group, to answer these questions: What does the text say? What is God saying to me through the text? What do I want to say to God about the text? What difference will the text make in my life?
“Spiritually speaking, our work in praying with Scripture is to abide,” Cyzewski writes. “Abiding may be the restful waiting of contemplative prayer or the more mentally active meditations on Scripture. Once we are at rest and aware of God, we will be open for God to move. As an anxious evangelical, I had never realized that I’m not the one who knows what I need from God. God alone knows what I need.”
The birth of Cyzewski’s first child hijacked his prayer routines. He renewed his connection with God by practicing the examen during his son’s afternoon nap. This involves becoming aware of God’s presence; reviewing the day with gratitude; paying attention to your emotions; choosing one feature of the day and praying from it; and looking forward to tomorrow.
“I have had to stop seeing the examen as a kind of test of my spiritual progress,” he writes. “Despite the resemblance to the word exam, the examen is not an evaluation but rather a reset point in my day.”
When Cyzewski went on his first retreat, he was undone. As an evangelical, he had been taught always to advance. He writes: “Once you ponder replacing the word retreat with the word advance, you find an encapsulation of the mindset that drives anxious Christianity, especially American evangelicals. We must always move forward. We must always make progress. . . . A retreat? That’s just admitting weakness, or a lack of determination or commitment.”
He’s discovered silent solitude helps him surrender to a loving God. He quotes Henri Nouwen: “Solitude is . . . the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self.”
Busy Americans who remain silent for more 30 seconds might find centering prayer unthinkable. Cyzewski once doubted too, but now sings its praises.
Centering prayer involves sitting in solitude for 20 minutes — letting go of distracting thoughts and returning to a sacred word, such as yes or peace — to become open to the presence and action of God in the silence.
He quotes Cynthia Bourgeault to describe the fruits of this kind of prayer: “Centering prayer is not about accessing sublime states of consciousness or having mystical experiences. The fruits of this prayer are first seen in daily life. They express themselves in your ability to be a bit more present in your life, more flexible and forgiving with those you live and work with, more honest and comfortable in your own being. These are the real signs that the inner depths have been touched and have begun to set in motion their transformational work.”
As a Mennonite turned Catholic, I attest to the quality of Cyzewski’s guidance and resonate with his passion. No matter what spiritual well one drinks from, the practices described in Flee, Be Silent, Pray offer living water.
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a writer and editor in Newton, Kan.