“My God, I pray better to You by breathing.
I pray better to You by walking than by talking.”
Dialogues with Silence.
God said to Elijah,
“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord,
for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Now there was a great wind,
so strong that it was splitting mountains
and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord,
but the Lord was not in the wind;
and after the wind an earthquake,
but the Lord was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire,
but the Lord was not in the fire;
and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
To write about wordless prayer is ironic. I worry about binding up something light, fragile, and gossamer in heavy cord and crushing it in the process. Sometimes, though, it takes a few words to get to a place of silence. Sometimes we have to go through more than a few words to find silence.
Wordless prayer is the practice of moving past the busy and confining words in our heads into a place of silent wordlessness. There we pray with our emotions, perhaps our bodies, or even with total silence.
We Protestants are a wordy people. In the Reformation we took the visual, tactile, and sensory mystery of Communion from the climax of worship and in its stead placed the sermon. What a sermon lacks in taste, touch, sight, and smell it more than makes up for in sheer wordiness.
Our hymnody and musical worship has also embraced wordiness. In some forms of worship, we become suspect of our music when it has fewer words; wordier hymns are righter, truer, safer. Songs without words are placed in the outlying slots of the prelude, postlude, and offertory. We even write songs about words, like, “Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life!” and, “Ancient words ever true, changing me and changing you.” While I am not condemning our sermons or our hymns—many have truly beautiful words in them—I do want to challenge how much we take for granted the wordiness of most of our worship.
Adventists are, as a lot, rational worshipers. We are convicted by the proclaiming of the gospel in a sermon. As mentioned above, we love word-filled hymns. Our founding prophet wrote volumes upon volumes of words.
Sometimes words are vital to our faith. John the Revelator needed wild and imaginative words to describe a revelation of Jesus Christ experienced first in mind-twisting imagery. The Bible itself is a collection of sacred words. Then there’s Jesus Christ, the Word of God (John 1). If God can be revealed as a word, we should definitely love and cherish our words.
On the other hand, God also reveals God’s self in wordless moments like in the “sheer silence” of 1 Kings 19. This is a classic passage for hearing God in silence instead of noise. The idea of a “still, small voice” we often hear suggested as the truest voice of God in our lives comes from this passage when God speaks after the silence. Like Elijah’s experience, we also need to move from a rushing cacophony of noise into silence before we can expect to hear anything.
Wordless prayer is the silence after the noise. Many prayerful people have considered silent, wordless prayer to be one of the highest forms of prayer. Indeed, in my own prayers I often find the silence so fulfilling that I don’t need to seek God’s voice afterwards.
I live a noisy life. My Hollywood apartment is over the parking garage and just a few blocks from a major hospital. Many hours of my week are spent in the aural assault of Los Angeles traffic. At night there’s the deep, throbbing hum of the refrigerator right outside my bedroom door, and the emotional noise of my neighbors alternately arguing and … not arguing. My computer beeps for attention, my phone buzzes, my toilet basin drips, drips, drips. With all that noise, silence becomes Sabbath for me. I spend far too much time devoid of silence. I thirst for it. If Sabbath is to make a break with the rhythms of this world and enter into a rhythm of sacred rest, then silence is for me a welcome Sabbath.
When I was a student at seminary—a place for words upon words—I found that many of my usual disciplines and rhythms for my prayer life weren’t working as well. My days were full of reading dense theological texts, writing essays, and listening to lectures, so reading devotional books and journaling—long my usual forms of prayer and reflection—ceased to be Sabbath rhythms for my spirit.
The most nurturing place for my soul during this season of words was a rocky beach-side cove. There I could sit in front of the ocean waves and rest, my mind refreshingly free of words. In that silence I could listen: to the tides, to the birds, and eventually to the Holy Spirit.
Wordless prayer is an act of listening. Healthy listening involves less of our own words and more of our partner’s words. In this case, our partner the Holy Spirit speaks in silence.
Richard Foster speaks of wordless prayer as “the one discipline that can free us from our addiction to words.”
Increasingly, I find wordless prayer to be the most satisfying, healing kind of prayer for me. To simply sit and soak in a sabbath from words is water to my soul. Sometimes from those wordless sanctuary-moments come experiences of most certain and calming words from God. Part of what makes those words from God certain, healing, and not-at-all confusing is that my own words—the swirling confusions, the quaking fears, the fiery emotions—have quieted down. There is the sound of sheer silence, and I can rest.
“But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
If you’re interested in praying wordlessly, in experiencing silent, wordless prayer, here are some thoughts that have helped me (drawn from Elijah’s experience):
Environment. Elijah went to the mountains for refuge. It helps immensely to leave my noisome places and go somewhere quiet. For me, that’s usually in nature: by a creek, at the ocean. It gives me something to focus on, an environment to settle into. A prayer room is good to. Maybe you have a large closet, or a quiet space in a church. Making the deliberate choice to enter a new, calming environment is a huge help for entering our own internal spaces of wordless prayer.
Don’t be discouraged by what you hear inside. Elijah had to first experience the wind, earthquake, and fire. Once we start listening in silence, many emotions, feelings, thoughts, and other mental and spiritual bric-a-brac will surface. They’ve been hidden beneath the noise for so long. Trust instead that Christ is with you and is guiding you. Acknowledge what comes up and love it. After all, it’s your own heart surfacing. Ask Christ to help you discern what is true, what is false, what hurts, what is good… then thank him, and let him carry the noise of your heart for a while. You’ve held onto it long enough already.
Don’t fear the silence. When Elijah heard the sound of sheer silence, he went out to face it. In one of my seminary classes on spiritual disciplines, a classmate of mine spoke about fearing the silence, that it would be a void that would be immediately filled by Satan. Trust God to protect you, to be faithful to meet you, depend on God’s provision and presence in this moment of prayer like the child resting in its mother’s arms in Psalm 131. God is with you.
What has your experience been with God, silence, and wordless prayer?
Scott Arany is a Canadian-Californian liturgical artist currently still living—much to his continued surprise—in Hollywood, CA. He is a singer/songwriter, photographer, graphic designer, and Appalachian dulcimer player. Scott has an MA in Worship, Theology, and the Arts from Fuller Theological Seminary and currently serves as Assistant Pastor for Worship at the Hollywood Adventist Church.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3163