My lifelong experiences of prayer were formed when I was very young. They began with learning to pray—always with words—in all the places young children are wont to do: prayers before meals, bedtime prayers, prayers in worship. Come Lord Jesus …. Now I lay me …. In peace, in peace, let us pray to the Lord ….
Even at a young age, I knew prayer to be about putting ourselves in places where God might be present. But I wondered how I might do this and whether God, indeed, was everywhere. I suspect my sense of being with God—experiencing the sacred presence in daily life, at once mysterious and inexplicable—was evidence of praying without words.
Later, as a young adult, I discovered the writings of a great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who introduced me to a Jewish sensibility: “God resting on our eyelids.” I loved the immediacy and literalness of the image coupled with Heschel’s passionate belief that God accompanies us whether we desire God’s presence or not.
I also remember a story of a Jewish shoemaker who would work late into the evening repairing the worn shoes of fellow villagers—the only pair of shoes they owned—so they could return to work the following morning. The poor shoemaker found himself torn between making time to pray the required daily prayers of his tradition and repairing the shoes so desperately needed by his customers.
His sigh of frustration became a prayer, a literal longing for God to be present in his work of mending, sewing and repairing so the people of his village would have shoes the next day. The shoemaker’s sigh was enough.
Too often we turn prayer into well-intentioned patterns of our own making. Too often we assume prayer is primarily about words. Sometimes there’s an almost magical understanding that if we get the words right, if we trust and believe enough, God will answer.
I want to experience God’s presence in more expansive and spacious ways. I want to consider prayer as a place, an attitude, a stance, a way of being in the world.
But most of us know that God isn’t a divine magician. We know that prayer is much more than our feeble attempts to make God pay attention to what God already knows, or to make God into a puppet responding to our tugs on the strings of God’s heart. Prayer is so much more than words.
I want to experience God’s presence in more expansive and spacious ways. I want to consider prayer as a place, an attitude, a stance, a way of being in the world. I want to practice prayer in acts of attention and beauty, compassion and devotion, enthusiasm and faith. I want to know prayer as gratitude, hospitality, imagination, joy and kindness.
I want to experience prayer in listening and being mindful, in nurturing and openness, in play and questing. I want to know God’s presence in reverence, stillness, thanksgiving. I want to notice God in the unity of things, in vision and wonder and mystery, yearning to be known by God and zealous to share the love and grace that God is.
The prayers I learned as a child were bookmarked by Scripture: daily readings, family devotions, worship. Because I’m steeped in the rich biblical traditions of a liturgical church, patterns of biblical prayer are rooted in my psyche. Early on, I found the Bible stories to be multilayered, complex, enigmatic—a way of listening to a mysterious God. Over the years, these encounters with Scripture continue to challenge and engage.
Listening to God in Scripture is part of my habit. But I’m not searching now for a theological or biblical description of prayer. I want to reframe some nontraditional ways of thinking about the Spirit of the living God and how God’s Spirit might be heard in ways, places or acts often not associated with prayer. I want to wrestle with a God who makes the ordinary holy.
These spiritual practices help us recognize God’s presence and experience prayer as the sigh of the shoemaker, who was too busy to drop worn shoes and kneel in “disciplined” prayer but not too busy to acknowledge God’s spirit amid ordinary life. They allow us to recognize the presence of the holy one within and without as we yearn to know God and to be known by God. This is the holy ground of praying without words.