Day 21: A Greatly Needed (and Little Experienced) Challenge

[The following is adapted from Live Prayerfully: How Ordinary Lives Become Prayerful]

One of my mentors, Ruth Haley Barton, has written, "silence is the most challenging, the most needed and the least experienced spiritual discipline among evangelical Christians today.”(1) That's quite a big statement, but I think she's right. If being quiet with God by praying without words is the most challenging, the most needed, and the least experienced spiritual discipline for us today, it’s going to be stretching for all of us, regardless of our personality preferences.

Praying without words is a practice that is contrary to our feelings, and it’s going to stretch any of us who practice it, so why would we bother with it?

Maybe we can understand the need for practicing prayer without words in our relationship with God if we think of times without words with our loved ones. Something about our relationships helps us to understand that it can be a sign of maturity to be able to enjoy being together while not saying anything.

My father was my hero, and he was extremely quiet. When I graduated from high school, I had the idea that it would be fun for the two of us to make the six-hour drive to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to see a Texas Rangers baseball game together. Their new ballpark had just opened, and he’d never been to a major league game, so we went. He and I drove there in his pickup truck the day of the game, watched it, stayed the night in a hotel, drove back the next day, and I don’t think we said more than 150 words on the whole trip. And for the rest of his life we still mentioned how much we enjoyed that trip!

You are likely not as quiet as my father and I, but I think you can understand something of this aspect of a relationship between people. There comes a point in getting to know someone when you can enjoy just being together rather than having to get acquainted through small talk and other conversation. Sure, words are still fine and are often used, but there is also a trust and comfort that is uniquely expressed without them.

Brennan Manning says, “Simply showing up is a kind of loving. The readiness to conscientiously waste time with a friend is a silent affirmation of their importance in our lives.”(2) That is a great description of what prayer without words is: “conscientiously wasting time with a friend to affirm their importance in our lives.”

I had been a Christian for quite a while before I ever realized the truth of this in my relationship with God. It occurred to me, “If I cannot enjoy just being with God, without having to fill the time with words or other things, what does that say about how close we are? How can I even really describe it as a relationship, much less an ‘intimate personal relationship’ like we often say, if I will so easily come up with any tool or excuse available to avoid just being with God?”

Dallas Willard describes this bluntly. He says, “Silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God. And in that quiet, what if there turns out to be very little to ‘just us and God’? Think of what it says about the emptiness of our inner lives if we must always turn on the tape player or radio to make sure something is happening around us.”(3)

Praying without any words is such an important part of the spiritual life because our time in prayer without words is the time when that “something between just me and God” is given a chance to grow and develop. It is the time when what we so often call a relationship with God can come to consist of the two of us actually enjoying being together.

A Prayer for the Day:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*

Click here for this week's scripture readings.

*From The Book of Common Prayer (1) See Ruth's book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God's Transforming Presence (2) See Brennan Manning, The Signature of Jesus (3) See Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives

[This is part of 40 Days of Prayer: Daily Emails for Lent]