Unspoken prayers

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By David Whitlock

Sometimes it’s the silent prayers that speak the loudest.

For years my mother has prayed for me on Sunday mornings before I preach. Last Sunday, Lori and I had taken our oldest daughter, Mary-Elizabeth, to the airport to fly to New York City where she is interning with Harper’s Bazaar for the summer. As Lori and I were driving back from Mary-Liz’s 7 a.m. flight, we talked of how we were excited and somewhat apprehensive about her opportunity in New York. And then back home, on my way to church, I asked mom to pray for Mary-Liz as she was at the moment in flight.

Mom started to pray for her granddaughter, and in mid-sentence stopped. Thinking it was a dropped call, I looked at my cell phone, then spoke, “Hello? Hello!” Nothing. Then I realized it wasn’t a dropped call or a dead area but an unspoken prayer. Mom’s voice, a tad weaker after 88 years of life, falters easier than it did in younger years. And I could sense she was tired that day. But something else was happening too.

Sometimes we simply can’t say the words. The emotion inside can squelch the strongest of voices. The intercessor whose soul searches for words expressing the yearning of the heart — a heart sometimes burdened with the plight of others, sometimes exuberant with joy, sometimes pained with past failures, but nonetheless seeking  a connection with God, a God who receives the inexplicable, the unutterable, the unspeakable with infinite understanding — on occasion can only gasp for words. And that was what happened as mom prayed. Her prayer was silenced.

But it was heard, ever so clearly. As Origen, the early church father of the third century observed: “God pays less attention to the words we use in prayer than he does to what is in our heart and mind.”  The Searcher of hearts is attentive to those desiring him, those desperate ones, those delirious for him. And when we, prompted by the Spirit of love are moved by compassion, care, and concern for others, even as we search for the Finder of hearts, then the One dwelling in us speaks the unspoken for us. This knowledge gives the speechless believer hope. The hope is that prayer, even when inexpressible, is ultimately the declaration of a life seeking its purpose beyond the self. As the Cistercian monk of the Abby of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton, said, “The purpose of our life is to bring all our strivings and desires into the sanctuary of the inner self and place them all under the command of an inner and God-inspired consciousness. This is the work of grace.”

When mom couldn’t speak, I spoke for her. I prayed what I thought she wanted to pray for Mary-Elizabeth. But words were not necessary. They had already been spoken. Sometimes it’s the silent prayers that speak the loudest.

Life Matters by David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., is published weekly. You can visit his website, DavidBWhitlock.com., or email him at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.