Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Draw near: Praying without words

Lynne Baab • Tuesday December 20 2022

Draw near: Praying without words

Sometimes when we want to pray, the words just won’t come. Wordless prayer can feel inadequate and awkward. Sometimes being with Jesus, without using words, is exactly the right thing to do. Maybe we want to sit quietly with Jesus, or perhaps walk with him, holding his hand, enjoying his nearness. Perhaps we want to listen to God.

I started this blog series called “Draw Near” exactly six months ago. My favorite way to describe prayer is drawing near to God. Or to Jesus. Or to the Holy Spirit. The idea of drawing near comes from Hebrews 4:15-16:

“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet without sin.  Therefore, let us draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

In this key verse about prayer, “draw near” is also translated “approach,” “come,” and “walk right up to him.” In real life, we draw near to people in many ways that do not involve words. As the pandemic was loosening its hold, I gave old friends and family members really long hugs without saying a word. I was so glad to be in their physical presence. When my granddaughter was three and four, I would hold her hand when we walked, sometimes without talking, but always relishing the feel of her precious hand in mine. I wonder what is the prayer equivalent of a long hug or walking while holding hands and not talking.

I want to sketch out some scenarios involving wordless prayer.

1. In nature. I was fascinated when I did the interviews for my book Sabbath Keeping at how many people who observe a Sabbath enjoy spending time in nature as a Sabbath practice. So often in nature we can relish God’s presence in the beauty of what God made, without needing to say anything. Sure, sometimes we say “wow” or “thanks” to God when we see a dramatic sunset or crystal clear water or stunning mountains. But sometimes we just enjoy the sense of wonder and peace that comes to us through God’s beautifully created world. When we seek God’s presence in nature, we “draw near to the throne of grace.”

2. When we want guidance. Listening to God is often challenging. We might force ourselves to try to listen when we have a big decision at hand or a big challenge. When I want to hear the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and direction, I often try to intersperse some times of wordlessness in prayer in the midst of all the words.

3. When we want the peace of Jesus’ companionship. I have written about the way I use my imagination in prayer. I have pictured Jesus near me in a boat, and I hand him my struggles for him to dump in the lake. I imagine sitting beside Jesus in Adirondack chairs. I reach out my hand and he holds it. Sometimes I talk to him as we sit in those chairs and sometimes I just try to soak up the joy of his presence. We can rest in God’s presence in a variety of ways that do not involve using our imagination, such as by breathing deeply or pausing in the midst of tasks to draw near to God wordlessly.

I was in my late 30s before I realized prayer didn’t need to involve words. I was raised in Anglican and Episcopal churches, and the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer is one of the gifts of my childhood that keeps on giving. Its words are eloquent and powerful (and numerous). In my early years as a Christian, in college and young adulthood, my fledgling faith was nurtured by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. There was a lot of talk about ACTS prayer. We learned a truly wonderful pattern of studying the Bible and then praying in a group or alone about how God was speaking to us through the passage we had just studied. Beginning in those years, and lasting until today, I have experienced beautiful prayer times in groups where we share prayer requests and pray for each other’s needs and concerns. All of these prayer patterns involving words are good, rich, and wonderful, but the danger of valuing them so highly is that we ignore wordless forms of prayer

Christians throughout history have valued prayer with and without words, and in fact back in my late 30s, when I first started learning about contemplative prayer, I learned ancient words related to these two forms of prayer: kataphatic and apophatic. The Ignatian Spirituality website describes them this way: “‘Kataphatic’ prayer has content; it uses words, images, symbols, ideas. ‘Apophatic’ prayer has no content. It means emptying the mind of words and ideas and simply resting in the presence of God.”  The Ignatian Spiritual website recommends a detailed article explaining these words.

I’m defining wordless prayer a bit differently than these ancient words because I include in the category of wordless prayer things like imagining walking beside Jesus or holding his hand or experiencing God’s presence in nature. Still, the ancient apophatic tradition emphasizes the benefits of simply being with God, without needing to understand everything or express all that’s on our minds. Our invitation to be with God that way is a big gift.

How lovely is your dwelling place,
   O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
   for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
   to the living God (Psalm 84:1, 2).

(Next week: looking back at 2022, looking forward to 2023, in prayer. Illustration: Corner Peak, Lake Hawea, New Zealand by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive updates when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below.)

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