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“Too Deep for Words”

The apostle Paul understood that there are moments and seasons in the Christian life when prayer seems like an insurmountable feat. In Romans 8:26 he says, “Likewise 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.” Yet while Episcopalians are “People of the (Prayer) Book,” there are times when the thought of saying the Daily Office is challenging, let alone actually praying through the Offices. I’m sure that people new to the Episcopal/Anglican tradition are sometimes overwhelmed by the Prayer Book itself. The good news, however, is that the Book of Common Prayer, with its Morning and Evening Offices, can be mastered over time. Take this from someone who assimilated into the Episcopal tradition.

But what are we to do during those moments and in those seasons when the act of prayer seems so dry, unattractive or burdensome? Well, as people of the Prayer Book, we can look to one recurring rubric in the Daily Office that will help us pray, albeit in a different way. If you “read the fine print”—the smaller italicized font—peppered throughout the Morning and Evening Offices, you’ll see following the Confession of Sin and the reading of the Lessons: Silence may be kept. This rubric is not only giving you permission to refrain from speaking at those particular moments, but it’s allowing you to sense God’s presence and practice another form of pray: contemplation. So, for those moments or seasons where saying the Daily Office is a too much to take on, just remember this rubric: Silence may be kept. 


Keeping Silence

Prayer as silence is not merely an absence of words; it’s not merely emptiness; nor is it merely a void. Actually, keeping silence is the only way to listen. This is not only true in conversations with our loved ones and friends, but it’s especially true with God, and our self before God. Therefore, silence is a fullness—a space created for the presence of God to fill and a space for God to speak into our lives. Here are two simple ways to experience the presence of God while keeping silence.

Prayer as Thinking

In his book Paths in Spirituality, John Macquarrie, a mid-twentieth Anglican theologian, reminds us of one form of non-verbal prayer: thinking. However, this shouldn’t be confused with silent prayer—praying words in the mind. Prayer as thinking (if I understand Macquarrie correctly), is allowing passionate images and thoughts to enter into the mind, not necessarily words. Here’s how he describes it: “To think of a world with longing for its perfecting is a step toward praying for the coming of the kingdom; to think of the world with rejoicing for all that is good is inarticulately to hallow the name; to think of the world with shame for our failures is implicitly to ask forgiveness for our sins and trespasses.” Thus, for Macquarrie, and for us by extension, if we sit still and think about such things that we’re passionate about, we’re actually praying.

Silence in the Presence of the Eucharist

The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple once said that Christianity “is the most avowedly materialist of all the great religions.” This is so because of two things: the Incarnation and the Eucharist. While Episcopalians in particular and Anglicans in general have avoided much of the historical controversy regarding the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we do agree that Christ’s presence is real in the consecrated elements of bread and wine after the Eucharistic prayer or anaphora is said. It’s the single reason why we reserve them. And if this is what we believe—that Christ is in our midst—then who better to sit with in silence. Macquarrie, again is helpful: “We do this is this manner because, we being [humans] and not angels, have need of an earthly manifestation of the divine presence; and because he, in his grace and mercy, has promised to grant us his presence in this particular manifestation and in this particular meeting place.”

So, next time you have some time in your parish or a parish with a tabernacle or aumbry, and you notice the light is lit or the votive candle is glimmering, sit and be still without saying a word, and let being in his presence be your prayer. Because sometimes the best prayer is too deep for words!


This article was originally published in the Episcopal New Yorker, Spring 2017.