Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10a)
Be still? Oh God ask me of me anything, but not that. Ask me to stop my career, move to San Diego, and be a missionary. I would do that. Ask me to direct a camp in Idaho. I would do that. Ask me to change denominations. I would do that. Ask me to stay up all night at the youth lock-in. Ask me to lead a mission trip to Tennessee. Ask me to direct a Christmas pageant. Ask me to do it again and again. Ask me go to anywhere, to speak to anyone, to do anything. But please, dear God, don’t ask me to be still.
God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your ability. (excerpt from 1 Corinthians 10:13)
Oh really, God. Explain my left leg to me. My left leg is the common enemy of the quiet and reverent and focused who find themselves in my presence. Since childhood it has had a tendency to bounce if I am seated. A gentle but relentless bounce. It was during a grade nine English exam where I first noticed its automated persistence. A classmate, inconveniently a gorgeous classmate who loved French and cats and drama club, and thus who I had a crush on, snapped. “OH MY GOD, can you please sit still!” she exclaimed into the silent void of fourteen-year-olds suffering their Dickensian plight of analysing Dickensian plots. I would note that contrary to what I would have hoped at the start of that exam, she is not now my wife. I presume she has since made a quiet home with a quiet, still husband. The distracting, bouncing left leg has not matured into stillness in the intervening decades or degrees or professional experience. It earns me glares on airplanes. Mercifully, the Good Lord has seen fit to place me in a religious tradition where when I sit reverently in front of the entire congregation, I am usually in flowing robes, moderately hiding the persistent distracted irreverence. It is a biological mystery I cannot stop. No doctor has figured it out. Whether or not it has a biological link to my mental health, I do not presume to know, but it is sort of the outward sign of an invisible neuroatypicality.
If you look for the entry of Adult ADHD in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I anticipate you’ll see a picture of me. It will be out of focus and I’ll be literally chasing a butterfly in the park. But it will be me.
When the bulletin of my parish’s Sunday service says, “Silence” I am struck by fear.
One may suppose, and one may likely be right to suppose, the faithful congregant, and by golly certainly the priest, should react to the invitation to be silent with a thought such as, “Oh thank heavens, I have the opportunity to quietly reflect upon God’s Holy Word” or other such mature and reverent thought. Intellectually, I say that to myself, but my true and honest first thought, is, “The LORD has disciplined me severely, But He has not given me over to death” (Psalm 118:18). Our liturgical silences are a carefully marked two minutes, begun and end with the music director’s bell. By 90 seconds, I am dying. The left leg is registering the entire chancel on the Richter scale. My thoughts move to self-motivation and desperate survival. “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial,” writes St. James (1:12).
Perhaps I am being melodramatic. But silence does not suit me. Stillness is not natural to me. And yet God calls us to rest, to take sabbath, to be still and know that God is. I hate every second of liturgical silence, and I am just self-flagellating enough to say I also believe it good for me.
So how does a priest with ADHD be, as my Pentecostal pastor from childhood would bellow in a deep-voiced Maine accent a “PRAYER WARRIOR.” (Now say it with three fewer R’s and four more syllables and you’re almost imagining it correctly.)
How do I get into a space of calm and quiet focus, how do I get on my knees and get to know God’s will in my life, how do I pause the unrelenting, never-shuts-up soundtrack of my own running thoughts, how do I supplicate and intercede for the saints to whom I have been called as minister, how do I fight the impulse to verbose and wordy and redundant insufferable run-away sentence interior running monologue that goes nowhere and yet is at the same time paradoxically prone to instantaneous distract–Oh, look, squirrel!
Outside my window there are chittering squirrels in an autumnal panic as they prepare for a Québec winter. I am reminded of my seminary class on Christian history in the United States where my lecturer’s style–monotone–and my learning style–distractable–resulted in two pages of notes on the lifespan of Eastern grey squirrels jotted in between thoughts on the evolution of Anabaptist groups in early Pennsylvania.
So with thousands of years of history saying that religious devotion is the domain of the still, quiet, and contemplative, how on earth do the rest of us pray?
If holiness is measured as monastic silence, then friends, I am chief among sinners.
But what if, just possibly, God calls whom God has created to the ministries best suited to the whole of who God has made us to be. What if ADHD is not a spiritual weakness, but offers a gift to the body of Christ?
I want to suggest prayer practices for those of us who are not quiet and still types.
And I want to offer a disclaimer. I am giving advice to my people. Not my denominational siblings necessarily but my dispositional ones. What I am not claiming is that there is any spiritual superiority, liturgical superiority, or theological superiority in what I suggest. The best prayer practice in your life is the one you’ll actually do. Sometimes Christian blogs seem competitive or suggesting the one right way to do something. I am the jittering and imperfect child of a loving God, just figuring out how to have a relationship my celestial parent.
- Shut up and stay still even if you hate it.
Let’s start with the obvious. All the reverent and mystical saints accompanying us on earth and in the hosts of heaven are on to something, even if it is innately hard for us. So I think a healthy dose of sucking it up and trying to focus is, in fact, in order. As a matter of personal disposition, I hate the moments of silence in my church services with a fiery passion I cannot describe. And that is why as a matter of liturgical theology I say they must never be replaced with more noise or stimulation.
Practice being still. Do not make stillness into a form of self-abuse, but practice it. My gym has a hot tub, and I sometimes make myself stay in it, silently for 15 minutes straight. This may not sound hard. This may sound lovely to some of you. And I admit, I try this fifteen minutes of stillness in a hot tub and not a chair in my apartment because I am stacking the odds in my favour, but nonetheless, it is hard for me. SIT STILL. Try it in small doses. Increase as your psychological strength increases.
Above all, prize any silent stillness over perfect silence and stillness. Maybe like me you live in Montréal and every single person you know is a yoga expert and meditation master who casually talks about their weekend silent retreat and kale cleanse with a serenity that makes you think, “I’ll never be spiritual.” Set a smaller goal. Sit in two minutes of silence after the sermon at Christ Church Cathedral. I assure you the associate pastor is squirming with you in solidarity. Two minutes a week of silence is a start.
2. Pray in Groups
Find a small group, a Bible study, a few faithful friends, and pick a time to pray together. Other people make you accountable. If you struggle to make time for God, an imperfect truth, but a true truth, is we’re usually a bit better at showing up to meet friends when we said we would.
3. Get a Prayer App
If you viscerally think getting an app on your phone somehow cheapens connection with the Almighty Creator of the Universe, I say unto you: I understand, but you’re (and past me was) wrong. If you use apps to keep track of your calendar and messages and calories, using one in your prayer life is not necessarily cheapening it, it is a sign you take it seriously. There are apps from Mission St. Clare for praying the daily office, a systematic approach to Bible reading and prayer that unites you with millions of other Christians who more or less follow the same schedule year round. There are guided meditative prayer apps. Try them all and unistall the ones that do nothing for you.
4. Try New Ways to Pray
Many particular Christian traditions pray in a very particular way. But sometimes your denomination doesn’t match your personality, and you don’t have to switch churches to switch prayer patterns. Try the Examen. It is a great way to reflect upon your day. Try an Anglican rosary. I find the repetitition actually becomes the background noise in my brain, replacing the genuinely noisy background noise, and allows me to start to calm down enough to think clearly and listen closely. If you grew up in an extemporaneous prayer tradition, try looking up “A prayer for…” and lean on the wisdom of those who’ve come before you. Read it first. Maybe you don’t want to pray that prayer, but hear it. And then, maybe, pray it, too, if you find the words are words you wish you had, but initally hadn’t. If you grew up in a written prayer tradition, try just extemporaneously talking to God. Don’t wait to have wise words, just share honest words and let the wisdom come, or not.
5. See Prayer as More than Words
Speaking is how humans mostly communicate with one another. We have to, often, because we are not telepathetic. But speaking is not the only way we communicate to each other, and often art and song and dance and touch are even better ways to communicate. This is all the more true of God who sees right through our words. If you like to paint, paint your prayer. If you like to sing, sing your prayer. If you like to dance, dance your prayer.
6. Pray in More than One Place
Can’t focus while sitting still? Throw out Advice Number One and don’t sit still. I learned early I talk most intelligently and, ironically to some people, with the most concentration if I’m doing something else at the same time, like driving or walking. So if sitting still means all you are thinking about is how awful it is to sit still, get up. God hears us as we walk. God hears us as we drive. Vary your setting. Look an icon to focus your prayer. Look through a stained glass window. Look at the majesty of God’s creation.
7. Pray Always
One of the most common pieces of prayer advice is to set a time for it aside and be consistent. If this advice does not work for you, as it does not for me, throw it out. Pray when you have something to say to God. And make sure you pray even when you don’t because God may have something to say to you. Instead of praying the same time each day, I schedule prayer at different times through out my week. God is my most flexible appointment partner in my work week. Thank God for that.
A final thought
When I was in middle school, I was in the Massachusetts finals of the National Geography Bee. All the other kids there had apparently studied for it. They strove to be in it. I sorta fell into it. I did not mean to know national capitals and flags inside and out, I learned them by not paying attention to what I was told to learn. By reading unassigned chapters. By flipping through books in class when I was supposed to be listening. And I learned there that my ADHD was a gift. It did not always make me good at school, but it made me great at acquiring knowledge.
The focused and calm people are a great gift to the body of Christ. But I am not one of them. I have the attention span of the average seven year old. And I am pretty darn good at teaching seven year olds because of it. In prayer, I cannot always focus on what the lectionary tells me to study, but I am open to a God of surprises. The body of Christ needs people who can stay in the church’s traditions and rhythms. The body of Christ needs people who are jumping up and down and listening at all the wrong times for the Holy Spirit. Together we make a body focused on Jesus Christ and a body open to the surprising and distracting insights of the spirit.
Be you and know that God lives.