Let Your Words be Few; or, Just Shut Up and Pray.
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Mt. 6:7,8)
At times, there is nothing more inconvenient and exhausting than engaging fellow christians in prayer. What I mean is this:
As I have fallen further down the rabbit hole of “doing ministry”, a lot of people come to me for prayer. As part of the school, we pray quite often as we try to give the students tangible practice of God’s presence. We pray for one another, we pray confession, we pray for healing, we sit quietly and contemplate. Prayer has become an integral part of my life, at it has bound me to Father and to my community on a very deep level. Yet I have recognized, in my life and the lives of those around me, language and attitudes that hint at an uncalibrated understanding of what prayer is. I am struck by the words of Jesus in Matthew, where he addresses the bad habits of his contemporaries by pointing to a lifestyle of simple prayer; and I lay it aside Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), and my head starts to hurt.
To me, there is a three-fold conflict in our intercessory prayer habits that speaks to a larger disconnect in our trust of Father. Firstly, I think most Spirit-led christians have a good intellectual understanding of the fact that our prayer language is not about some magical incantation, that when spoken correctly convinces God that He should hop to it and make our dreams come true. Yet there is still this underlying practice in our words that sounds just that way: a rain-dance of words, if you will, or a séance to manifest a presently non-present god in our midst. Jesus is pointing to this paganistic practice as exactly what not to do with God. Indeed, from a purely anthropological standpoint, the appearance of the Judeo-Christian YHWH was the antidote to every previous model for diety available. But I find in myself and others this struggle to find just the right words to accurately express my thoughts, which is an admirable pursuit until the words themselves cloud the purpose. Now I’m looking for a formula over a relational experience with the divine. A good friend of mine once pointed out how often we ask God to “just” do this or that, and it’s transformed the way I hear prayers. What do our use of “just” denote? Or when we substitute “um” for any number of pet-names for God? Or when we hardly leave room for breath betweens phrases?
Secondly, and perhaps the more poignant revelation, is that we exercise a divided focus in our vocal prayer. By that I mean we split our attention between Father and the person we are praying with, so much so that we lose focus on who we are talking to. As a natural teacher, I find that as I pray for others I keep slipping in to trying to communicate to the other what I think of their situation and how they should deal with it, all the while pretending that I’m still talking to God. On the other side, when I am the one struggling and processing, I say to God what I really just want to express to my friend. As Ian Morgan Cron says, most of us are just exercising our anxieties out loud, we’re not really praying. Now, this is a slippery slope. In the story of Lazarus, Jesus says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41,42). There is something to praying for the benefit of those around us, but we can’t have our focus divided and blurred to the point where we are communicating poorly and inauthentically to either God or community.
Finally, we betray our experience by resorting to “God-approved” language in prayer. The little phrases and christiany words we relegate to talking to Him actually keep us from saying what we really want to say, thus we never come to terms with the experience of our own reality. I have found the power of confession is in speaking out what we really feel, whether it be a past hurt or lie, or a current sense of overwhelming. Perhaps most frequently in those of us who have been raised in christian culture we find our language in prayer betrays a sense of really owning our pain or being truthful. Thus we are blunted to our own experience, and we prevent true growth and redemption from taking place. It is intricately tied in to the aforementioned practice of divided attention, and causes a further rift in our faith-life and the other bits. If I am to be holistic in my identity, I have to bring down the paper-thin wall between my christian language and my secular. I have to side-step the Jesus-switch altogether and be honest in all my words.
A few weeks ago in our monastery week at the Anchor, a friend approached me and asked me to pray for him. We had been inside the walls of the church for a while (the incense was maybe getting to my head), so we decided to go for a walk around the block to get some fresh air. We ended up talking for over an hour. In it, he confessed his struggles and his guilt, and I was able to say, “me too”. We talked about what we knew to be true, and our difficulty in living it out practically. We bonded over the commonality of being human. It was, for both of us, a very healing moment. To be authentic to our physical reality, yet to be reminded of the ultimate truth of the spiritual one. At the end I said something like, “look, I am more than happy to pray about this with you, but I know for a fact that as we have just been honest with each other and shared life, God was more present than any number of words I could string together to convince Him to pay attention and fix us.” We said a brief prayer together, just a few meaningful words, and were done with it.
All we really want of others and God is to know and be known. I am starting to realize in my own life especially how I have hid behind the pretense of prayer in allowing either to happen. Through that encounter with my friend at monastery I’m starting to see true prayer in broader, more powerful terms than ever before. I want to tell people how I really feel, and I understand that they want the same. I want my prayer life to be about silent receptiveness as much as my words. About a communion with the divine that runs deeper than mere communication. What does it mean to “pray without ceasing”? It means to be honest, at every moment. To be available in that honesty as an experience to share with God and Others. And in that communion we find genuine healing and redemption.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.