The day no words would come
Whenever I’m with my family and I make a dumb joke, my parents like to roast me by saying that they look forward to eventually writing in my baby book the first time I tell a good joke. If this mythical baby book that has been dangled over my head for decades actually exists, we could have made a strange addition recently: the first time I wanted to pray at church but couldn’t.
I have been a liturgical Christian my whole life, first as a Roman Catholic and now as an Anglican. I’ve gone to church thousands of times, and even as a child with no notion of how to pray, I always had words to pray because they were given to me. I remember hearing everyone saying the Nicene Creed and wondering about this “Punchless Pilate” we named every week. Once I got older, I learned the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be by heart, and I would say a stack of them after communion. So whether it was the words of the mass or a formulaic prayer, I never had the experience of lacking words for prayer.
Until last month, that is.
At the end of a particularly long workday filled with video calls, I closed my work laptop in time to open my home laptop and join the streaming video feed for the ordination of a local Anglican leader. I didn’t even need a prayer book because they were projecting the words.
But as the liturgy started and I saw bold words come up for the people to say, I could not say them. All I had to do was say what was written, but I was so drained of energy that I couldn’t even think the words. All I could do was sit quietly next to my fireplace and listen.
I had been to church many times when I didn’t want to be there or I was completely distracted, but even then, the words were written in my soul, and I could say them on autopilot. Even when I’d gone to church in a foreign country where I didn’t know the language, I would say the prayers in English in a whisper. But for all the fire in the fireplace next to me that day, I couldn’t fire the prayer-engine inside of me.
The witness of the Church
For a moment, I felt powerless and anxious. But then I felt peaceful consolation. Like never before, I understood the weight of what we mean when we say that we pray with the universal Church. The other people attending that ordination were lifting up all of our prayers, including the ones I couldn’t mouth or even think but that had been on my heart ahead of the ordination. All I could offer that day was my presence, and that was enough.
After that initial moment of worry passed, I basked in comfort. So much comfort, in fact, that I fell asleep for part of the homily. I was disappointed to miss what the bishop had to share, but not troubled by it. I knew that if Jesus could break bread again with the disciples who kept falling asleep in Gethsemane, he could do the same for me.
But Gethsemane was long ago and far away; I needed a parallel closer to home. When I was a kid, one of the parishes near our house had an early mass on Saturday nights, and busloads of senior citizens from nursing homes, many in wheelchairs, would come to satisfy their spiritual hunger before they would satisfy their physical hunger at what surely would be an early dinner. I wondered why some of them even bothered coming since sleepy heads would fall to their chests even before the sign of the cross.
That day of the ordination, I remembered those older people and their strange witness to me. In the Body of Christ, it is not our energy or talent that saves us but the sacrifice of Jesus once for all upon the Cross and in which we are invited to mysteriously partake again each time we feast. It is not our vitality that does the trick, but his victory over mortality. When we commit ourselves to that truth and the hope that comes from it, when we reassert our membership in this diverse Body, we prepare to be there when “the roll is called up yonder.”
For those sleepy seniors long ago, I could finally understand the special sort of comfort they must have felt sleeping in church. Not just sleeping in front of Wheel of Fortune, but sleeping in the presence of so many others praying for and with them and, in so doing, inviting Christ into their midst. This word “comfort” relates directly to the Holy Spirit, whom we call the “Comforter.”
Comfort is maybe best understood negatively: not not having hope, not having privation, etc. To fully understand comfort, it feels like we need to experience rescue from one of these pits. I pride myself on toughness, rigor, and resolve, but that day, I was weak and poured out, just as lethargic as the most bed-ridden senior. I was right where I needed to be for a holy humbling. I used to spend periods of prayer mouthing words and fingering prayer-knots to empty myself so that God might enter in. That day, I didn’t strive for emptying; it was all I had to offer.
I recall the words Orthodox Christians pray to the Spirit at each divine liturgy: “O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us…”
All the prayer-knots and semi-Pelagian striving had never gotten me what I wanted, which was that sense of filling up with God and abiding in Him. For all the time I have spent trying to learn to talk to God, I think He wanted to remind me that prayer is much less about what we say to Him than learning to hear what He says to us. I needed to be present, stop talking, and listen. It took a day when no words would come for me to realize it.
Matt Luby is a parishioner at St. Ambrose Anglican Church in Seattle, where he works in business. He holds a B.A. and M.A., both from The Ohio State University. He has published with The North American Anglican, Covenant, and The Stranger. His personal site is http://mattluby.info/.