When I Had No Words

What Saint Patrick and the ancient Christians taught me.
When I Had No Words

I was raised on prayer. Some of my earliest memories are praying at bedtime with my mother at my side: "God bless my sister, my brother, my dad . . . " right down to the names of the gerbils in their cage.

In church and at mealtimes, we were taught to pray spontaneously. If you had to use a "canned prayer," you weren't trying hard enough. It was an unspoken, Talk to God from the heart—tell him what's on your mind.

I had plenty to say. So this kind of prayer life served me well. Until my late thirties, when the words evaporated. I'm a writer, and words are my stock-in-trade. I always had a good supply, both written and verbal. But when I tried to pray, I found I had no words.

With this new state of affairs came doubt. Did my prayers really do anything? Was anyone listening? So I stopped praying.

The weeks stretched into months. I moved from surprise, to frustration, and finally, to resigned acceptance. I felt a darkness, a void, in my life without prayer. So I went searching for it. Eventually, help came from an unexpected quarter: men and women who were several centuries old. The ancient Christians and their written prayers.

Meaningless Repetition?

It started simply. About the time I was unable to pray, we joined a church that regularly said The Lord's Prayer together. For me, it was an epiphany. Pray together? Out loud? I had no words myself, so why not? I had nothing to lose.

Every Sunday, I prayed The Lord's Prayer with my community—people I loved, those I disliked, men and women who were strangers to me. An odd thing happened. As I prayed in community, I discovered comfort in the fact I was praying at all. I felt a connection to those who prayed with me. And I felt a link to the roots of my faith, stretching back to those early disciples and Christians who prayed the same prayer two centuries ago.

This connection with The Lord's Prayer opened more possibilities. I looked up other ancient prayers, mostly from the first-century church. The prayers were laid out for me. All I had to do was speak them to God. They gave me words when I had no words of my own.

My days began with Scripture, and this prayer for the morning:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

I found reassurance in this plea for help each morning—especially, "direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose." I had no idea what to do next. But I was asking for help. Surely God would give me direction!

Before bed, I read:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.

God was awake, keeping watch as I slept. I marveled. The rote prayers that I had formerly put aside as "meaningless repetition" became a lifeline for me, drawing me closer to God, helping me relax in the knowledge of his care.

Dark Nights of the Soul

As I rested in this framework of prayer and began growing in my faith again, I searched out other prayers. I found that great men and women of the Christian faith often wrestled with the same doubts, frustrations, and "dark nights of the soul" that I struggled with. They had questions; they were unsure, which their prayers reflected.

Augustine (c. 354-430) prayed: "Father, I am seeking: I am hesitant and uncertain, but will you, O God, watch over each step of mine, and guide me?"

I discovered Gregory of Nazianzus's (c. 329-390) prayer, which laid out his shortcomings, just as I sought to confess my own:

"O Word of our God, I betrayed you, the Truth, with my falsehood, when I promised to hallow the hours that vanish away. In overtaking me, night does not find me undarkened by sin. I did indeed pray, and I thought to stand blameless at eve. But some way and somewhere my feet have stumbled and fallen; for a storm cloud swooped on me, envious lest I be saved. Kindle for me your light, O Christ, restore me by your presence."

Kindle for me your light. What powerful words these were in the darkest places of my life! Gregory's prayer, and prayers like his, served as a starting place for me to find my own words of confession again—stumbling, halting, imperfect words—because I longed for the light to return.

My problems were nothing new. I was not alone. The words of these Christians propped me up, put me back on the path to prayer, and gave me comfort and hope.

More Assured

At first I read and spoke these ancient prayers at rising and at bedtime. But I found other prayers that were helpful at specific moments; especially at times of anxiety and fear. The Celtic Christians seemed especially adept at voicing my need for God's protection. I found myself turning to their words. Portions of a prayer attributed to Patrick (c. 387-493), a brave Briton missionary to Ireland (and often called Ireland's patron saint) reminded me of God's protection:

Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name, The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same. The Three in One, and One in Three.

Columba (c. 521-597), another Irish missionary, gave me this easily memorized prayer:

"Alone with none but thee, my God, I journey on my way. What need I fear, when thou are near, O King of night and day? More safe am I within thy hand than if a host did round me stand."

As I prayed the words of Patrick and Columba, I found myself calmer, less afraid, more assured through these pleas for God's presence from Christians who also knew fear and worry.

As I write this today, I've found words of my own to pray again. I've learned to pray in ways without voicing words as well: journaling, walking, drawing. But I rest assured, knowing that if I ever find myself unable to pray, I am surrounded by a mighty band of ancient Christians. These ancients are ready to prop me up, to let their words stand in for mine, and help bring light into any darkness that might come my way.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Contemplation; God's Voice; Intercession; Listening; Prayer
Today's Christian Woman, May , 2010
Posted May 1, 2010

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