Formulas and language are so much at the forefront of our conversation about prayer, that the mystery of a conversation with the living God is all but lost. Add our preoccupation with intercession and petition and the mystery disappears completely. God has become like a stranger — accosted on the sidewalk — forced into our homes without prelude or introduction, without relationship or experience, gang-pressed into service, meeting our needs.
Don’t get me wrong.
I am not opposed to prayers of petition and intercession. I am not opposed to spoken prayer. I often find myself counseling people who wonder what to say when they pray to simply treat their relationship with God like a conversation with someone you are confident loves you better than yourself. I trust that in time a knowledge of the relationship will shape the conversation, turning plaintiffs into children, beneficiaries into companions of Christ. But we are spiritually stuck and the pattern isn’t changing. The culture favors something less robust and we are living down to its expectations.
Don’t get me wrong.
I am not interested in mystifying prayer. That is not the same thing as the mystery itself. The mystery of prayer is the distance between God and us — the unutterable gulf between heaven and earth. It is also about the unexpected and undeserved love that bridges the distance. Turning prayer into voodoo is an act of self-indulgence that erases the mystery. It puts me in the center and in charge. Mystified prayers are prayers said to impress, prayers used to wrap the aura of secret knowledge around our shoulders. It is self-indulgent nonsense, the work of hacks and charlatans.
Prayer shaped by conversation in mystery is marked by unspoken prayer — those transparent moments when the distance and the love overwhelm us in the same moment. There are times when it is the unexpected gift, thin space in which we can feel the presence of God, but we are not in charge and the words fail us.
There are other times when it is the gift given in a hard place. Prayer unspoken when our resources fail us, when the presence of a loved one slips behind the fog that is Alzheimer’s disease and all we can do is trust God’s embrace. Unspoken prayers when we walk alongside Christ, convinced that we are meant to be his faithful companion, but forced by circumstances without the reassurance or encouragement of those around us.
These are the unspoken prayers — the prayers that depend upon the One who is other and who loves us more than we love ourselves.