Prayer: A Space Without Words

To my readers: How often do we tell each other they are in our prayers? I began to think more about the act of praying . I am the author of this post, but also the learner. I felt the need to dig deep, beyond the words with some personal stories. (Gloria)

We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. We need silence to be able to touch souls. (Mother Theresa)

Garden of the Gods is a National Natural Landmark, near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Millions of visitors come each year to marvel at these red sandstone formations, appearing like hands clasped together in prayer, beneath the watchful gaze of a snow-capped Pikes Peak. These spires were once ancient sand dunes that went through cycles of being compressed, cemented, then buried, and uplifted.  Eons ago they were etched away and elevated by the more recent Rocky Mountain. Geologists say these pinnacles are still uplifting, resulting in a wonderful coexistence of natural science and godly inspiration. Withstanding natural erosion, and continually reaching high to the heavens, Garden of the Gods is one place where anyone can go to feel a prayer.

Feeling a Prayer

In the wonderful children’s book and screen series, Anne of Green Gables, our lovable gangly and unschooled orphaned Anne Shirley, tries to learn a prayer to win approval from Miranda, her would-be adoptive parent. But she cannot help herself.  Impulsively she blurts this out:

 “If I really wanted to pray, I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness . . . and then I’d just FEEL a prayer.”

Feeling a prayer speaks to me, too.  Aside from my frantic Oh God, Help Me, or Anne Lamott’s grateful Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, prescriptive prayers, spoken aloud, often leave me hollow.  However lovely and poetic, they keep me in my willful brain. Like Anne, I think of prayer as a place, beside the cool waters, welled deep inside of me or on a prayer walk with nature as my conduit. I am like Thomas Merton who said, “My God, I pray better to you by breathing . . .by walking than by talking.”

Finding this space is not a conscious journey. I am led. Prayer has its own GPS.  If I veer off-course, prayer reroutes me to my wordless sanctuary. It’s always there, cushioning me in the darkness, where thy holy will takes root. Like the ancient spires in the Garden of the Gods, I can reach high, be uplifted and most importantly, I can listen.

The Woes of the World

The Germans call it weltschmerz, which translates to feeling the woes of the world. I must admit that I am acquainted with weltschmerz.  I see and feel the horrors of devasting loss, injustices, wars, and brutalities, whether it be worldwide or around the corner.  It is too heavy a load to carry by myself. Plus, I don’t want to allow despair to dominate me. So, I take a cue from the Garden of the Gods. I imagine a compactor that mashes overwhelming sorrow into wieldy dimensions and I turn them into upward spires of hope where grief and resilience coexist.  

Collectively, we wonder how a just and loving God can allow the evil deeds humans do to each other?  Maybe that is the wrong question.

I recall a sermon on prayer, given by the late Dr. LaRue Loughead, former pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Denver, Colorado. He challenged me to think more deeply about prayers and God’s role in prayers. Do we believe in a God who isn’t paying attention, a God who needs to be reminded, or prodded? I left the service that bright sunny Colorado day, with a new thought. We don’t pray to change God.  We pray to change us.  God works through us, the collective us. Doctors do His work. Teachers, neighbors, leaders, researchers, and even wayward souls in a moment of divine clarity, all God’s angels, doing His work here on earth. I have three stories to tell when God’s angels touched me in meaningful ways.

A Child’s Faith:  Like a Mustard Seed

And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. (Matthew 17:20)

I have a story to tell of my early unwavering, unshakable belief in prayer.  To tell it, I have reach far back into my childhood when I held on to absolutes about prayer and God; resolute, not watered down or explained away. I’d like to reclaim that kind of faith that expects a miracle against all odds, the kind of faith in prayer that allows no room for disclaimers, the kind I had as a child, that stuck to my soul like peanut butter to the roof of my mouth.

My Prayers Were Heard

As a child, I said my prayers every night knowing that God heard my every word, and that He loved me so much that nothing was impossible. In addition to my nightly bless-my-family prayers, my young naïve mind offered up three more prayers that were more like requests, but they were important to me.  Months turned into years; my three prayers, unchanged, were tirelessly repeated.  And in time, one by one, all three prayers were answered.  The first two may now seem trivial, but to my young heart, they mattered. The third was life changing.  Even now, as I write this, I am in awe of the angel sent to me, the doctor who transformed my life.

My Story

–I love dogs but my Mom put her foot down. “No Pets!”  For years, I begged and I begged until she finally relented. I could keep one if I “found” one. That made me smile. Poor Mom.  She didn’t know about my prayers and Who was on my side. So, when I found a furry little pumpkin-colored puppy whimpering and wandering on our street, I knew God sent him to me.  Mom said he surely belonged to someone and I had to go door-to-door to find his true owner. Not a bit worried, I ventured out and knocked on doors.  But no one on our street and the next two streets claimed him.  I guess someone dropped him off in the nearby woods and the poor hungry lost puppy rambled down the street until he found me. He was mine, and I named him Rusty.

–My parents had an old-fashioned out-of-date notion: girls don’t ride bikes.   After months of convincing them that I was the only nine-year-old girl without one, they offered me this one condition. I could have a bike only if someone gave one to me. I’m sure they thought it was a long shot, but I knew better. God would do this for me. I had no doubts.  And I didn’t have to wait very long.  A few weeks later, there was a knock on our door, and I knew.  I just knew. Knocks at our door were rare.  We lived in a close-knit neighborhood where doors were never locked, and friends just walked into our kitchen announcing themselves with a “You-who”.  So, a rare knock at the door garnered much attention. It was a lady we didn’t know.  She apologized for interrupting our day and went on to explain that her grown children, who were long gone from the house left so much stuff in her garage.  With a sudden urge to clean out her garage, she had to do something about this bicycle.  I peered out our window and there was a girl’s bike, parked in our yard. It was a dull red, and needed some dusting off, but I thought it was beautiful. The lady went on to explain that she thought young girl lived in our house and maybe, just perhaps, we’d take this bike off her hands.  I had my bike. Thank you, God.

–This last story is the life-changing answer to my third childhood prayer, and the most amazing. For me it was worth the wait.  The puppy and the bike were easy, but the next answer to prayer would require a miracle. I knew nothing was impossible for God. I asked God to fix my teeth.  My request was that I would wake one morning and have the smile I longed for. God could do that. There was a wide gap between my two front teeth which caused me much embarrassment.  My hand covered my mouth when talking or laughing. This was in the 1950s and braces were a new thing. My family could not afford them, nor did they trust them. An older cousin had one of these early twisted medal contraptions looking like barbed wire that clamped on to teeth. It cut through her checks and caused her much pain and tooth decay.   So braces were not an option, but no matter. No problem for God. I was sure He could do it.  I didn’t have to understand how. I just left the details up to Him.  

Fast forward to the 1970s, two years after I graduated from college.  I was planning to move to Colorado, to teach there and to ski the slopes of the rugged Rocky Mountains. But just about a week before I left my home state of New Jersey, one chance visit to the dentist changed my life. A piece of filling unceremoniously fell out of my tooth which resulted in an emergency appointment. That day, my regular dentist was not there so I was seen by someone new. In my reclined position, the dentist went about his business refilling my cavity. Then abruptly, he stepped back, studied me and then asked me a question.  Was I embarrassed about my smile? My mouth was still outstretched wide, and I could only manage a two-syllabled grunt. “Ah-huh,” On the spot, right there, he had an idea. He presented his plan to me and asked for my permission to proceed. Full of hope, and wonderment, I agreed. A few weeks later, my front teeth were together. No gap. And yes, I woke up with a new smile. This is what the dentist proposed and did, at no charge: He placed one of those mini-rubber-bands around my two front teeth.  I felt the pulling sensation but it didn’t hurt. That small pressure created very tiny spaces on either side of my teeth.  Using his tools and cementing substance, he then inserted porcelain tabs he called “stoppers” in those spaces.  If his idea work, he explained, this procedure would “trick” my back teeth to move forward.   He said the porcelain would eventually ebb away with regular brushing. And that is exactly what happened, only by then, I was already in my new state, with my new smile, feeling a Rocky Mountain high. I wrote to him, thanking him for what he did for me. He wrote back saying he just had a hunch, a desire to help me and he acted on it. He was just glad it worked. ( I knew exactly where he got his hunch.)  

Of all the lessons gleaned from those three answers to prayer, I think how amazing heavenly impulses, if we heed them, can change lives. I also think how much like a knock at the door is prayer. A knock is an intentional calling and we are asked to answer that calling. What is waiting for us?  It’s all been said. Jesus’ words were given to guide us but have we kept them too distant? Diluted them? Assigned them to a spiritual storage waiting to be dusted off? From my perch, I feel Jesus knocking at my door; this waiting for me:

When you do it to the least of them, you do it for me. (Matthew 25:45

Silent Assemblies: The Power of the Collective Unconscious

“For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up…” Robert Barclay (1648-1690)

Barclay, a Scottish Quaker might be referring to what Carl Jung later described as the collective unconscious. Catholics call it the Communion of Saints. I do believe that prayers raise the collective unconsciousness, yet I cannot pretend to fully understand it.  I only know this: I need to be fully present, fully authentic in my praying. No pretense, judgment, filter or ego.  Not someone else’s recipe for prayer.  Not just a praying emoji. God knows when I’m only half there. To be fully present, I need to disentangle from worldly clamor and go to my quiet wordless space, deep within me.  I used to say that I needed a good walk in the woods to hear my own heartbeat. Now I think, perhaps it was a way to step into a doorway to the collective, graced in golden light, where gratitude, love, and compassion meld into one force, one communion, one common prayer language, resound together in a divine constellation of souls.

Awakenings: Paying Attention

We see the fruits of the collective unconscious. The hunger for freedom arose and the poor, the destitute and the tired masses fled to and built America. A century later, this new, yet imperfect nation heard the cries from the oppressed and thanks to abolitionists, the evils of slavery ended. Equality among race, sex, sexuality, class, and religion are still in progress.  A new consciousness gave women the vote here in the United States but that does freedom not yet exist in all countries.  Yet, even one of the most oppressive countries is now allowing women to drive.   And there is the ME-TOO movement. It’s as though we finally awoke and paid attention. We freed ourselves from narrow views, released from their grip, like Spanish Moss loosened and set free.  

Thoughts of freedom didn’t just arrive in 1776. Freedom is one of those cries of the ages, continually sounding, like incessant waves brushing the shore. But like many truths too big to stick around, they quickly retreat, denied by an undertow of doubt.  At Christmas, we sing carols heralding peace on earth, but soon after the last nativity candle is extinguished, thoughts of peace are swallowed up by the dark. Can’t happen.  Too lofty.  Yet dreams of peace on earth persist, kept alive by musicians, writers and artists. So here and now is where I reclaim that unshakable kind of faith that expects a miracle against all odds, the kind of faith in prayer that allows no room for disclaimers. I no longer waste my time asking head-scratching helpless questions about why God ignores the cries. Instead, I pray to God, who knocks at the door, waking up his angels here on earth.

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. (Rev 3:20

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Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher said, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…. We need silence to be able to touch souls. (Mother Theresa)

Invitation:  What is your prayer story?  Tell us.  Join the collective. Touch souls.

And This: Found on a  Recent Prayer Walk

I came across this sign while on a walk on a tree lined lane in the off season at Fire Island, NY.  It reads:

Feel Free to Talk to the Plants.  They Understand.

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