The Practice of Silent Prayer

As part of the children’s time one Sunday morning, I said, “Sometimes when we pray in church, we use a lot of words, because sometimes prayer is like talking to God. But there are other ways to pray besides using our words. What do you think some of those other ways might be?”

“Doing something kind,” said one of the girls. “Being nice,” said one of the boys. “Music.” “Reading the Bible.”

“Sometimes we can pray in silence too,” I said. “We can pray without words.”

I wanted to try praying in silence with the children that morning, but I wasn’t sure they would be ready for it. So I had brought my children’s Bible with me, ready to read Psalm 23 instead. But the children seemed more focused than usual that morning, so I invited them to join me in silent prayer. Some bowed their heads and folded their hands. Some closed their eyes. One shy boy just looked at me and smiled. For a moment the sanctuary was quiet as we held silence together. That silence and that shared smile became our prayer.

As a pastor and writer, I’m a communicator who loves words. I work with words, play with words, and often pray with words both in public and when I’m alone. But sometimes words fail me. They seem so clumsy, so inadequate, too weak to get beyond my living room let alone make it through heaven’s doors.

How can I pray about the horrific shootings in Orlando earlier this month? Or talk to God about the kidnapping and killing of a Canadian tourist in the Philippines? How can I pray my fears and hopes over my husband’s recent job termination? I find myself searching for words and not finding them, or finding the words and not being able to put them together in a way that makes good sense.

So last fall, I wrote “How to Pray for the Syrian Refugee Crisis When You Can’t Find the Words,” then for Remembrance Day “How to Pray for Peace When You Can’t Find the Words,” and followed that in May with “How to Pray About Mental Illness When You Can’t Find the Words. Apparently, when it comes to prayer, I am becoming increasingly tongue-tied. I hadn’t intended that first blog article to become a series, but somehow one post became two and three, and I will quite likely keep adding to the impromptu series.

When I can’t find my own words for prayer, I’m grateful for the words of Scripture and the words of other prayerful people. When I’m feeling tongue-tied, I can be inspired by the words of others, receive them as a precious gift, pass them on, and offer them up to God.

My stumbling in prayer has also made me grateful for silence. When I can’t fill the formless void with words, I realize that I don’t have to. I can hold the people I love in God’s light and love even when I don’t know how best to pray for them. I can lament for those who are hurting even as I lean into the silence. It’s okay simply to be still, for “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27).

Today I’m visiting my friend, Tina Osterhouse, on her blog. For more on The Practice of Silent Prayer, please join us there. . . . 


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8 thoughts on “The Practice of Silent Prayer

  1. Many thanks for making one post become a series. As a writer, I also love words whether writing them or speaking them. Often I love them too much, and the need to be silent at times is a struggle. I appreciate this reminder.

    1. I appreciate your words of encouragement, Sherrey. I feel quite at home with words and with silence, and feel sustained by the rhythm of both. May you share deeply in both as well.

  2. Thank you. Yes. Much of this I could have written. Your words here echo Richard Foster’s writing in his excellent book “Prayer.” I have been slowly working through it and learning to walk in a “praying always” attitude. In such times as these we can strive to do no less.

    1. So nice to hear from you! Another reader asked me offline about Foster’s book on Prayer also. I read it years ago and used it as a resource when I taught a continuing ed class on prayer. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline has also been formative for me.

  3. “I can hold the people I love in God’s light and love even when I don’t know how best to pray for them. I can lament for those who are hurting even as I lean into the silence.”

    April, your words of faith illumine truth and compassion, even shocked silence with trust in God—another kind of eloquence.

    1. Yes, Laurie, how true that silence can be another kind of eloquence. I sense that in prayer, in the rests between musical notes, the pauses in poetry. Thanks for your comment.

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