Knowing what to say during prayer has always been a real question for people. Even the disciples asked, “Lord, teach us to pray,” whence comes the beloved and simple prayer that all Christians know: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” I suppose the situation of talking to God itself prompts unease, “what should I say?” After all God is, well, God. Even the thought of speaking to God—sovereign of the universe, all powerful, all knowing, and perfect—induces a rush of self consciousness. Despite this discomfort a compelling parallel instinct abides. Because God is these things we know we ought to relate to Him.
For the human being relationships happen through speaking. When you speak you put something of your very self out there. By analogy, if you were an ocean, then speaking would be to scoop out some of your water and cast it into the air over the land. Words put us “out there” for others, and so, naturally we should put ourselves “out there” for God. And we hope for a similar return, not from selfishness, but because that is the nature of relating to others.
But what should we say to God? What should we cast in His direction? My answer more and more has been, nothing, which paradoxically is both proper and foolish. This comes from trying to be more regular in saying prayers. That effort stems from the experience of not praying, of not talking to God. That kind of silence makes no kind of relationship. But in my efforts for regularity I find the very things that I cast His way are, in my opinion, silly. The lesson He teaches is, “cast them to Me anyway!”
Put another way my effort to speak has been a discovery about proper silence. My silly things force a change either in my opinion of those things (my judgment of them as silly is false and prideful), or in my behaviors that give rise to silly sayings. Failure to say them deprives me of this repentance.
In many more instances I meet the experience summed up by St. Paul, “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words…” (Rom. 8:26, NASB) The thing I want to say to God is present, but no matching words present themselves. Thus I have found comfort in what is known as the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy upon me a sinner.” It is the perfect thing to say when something must be said, but words fail.
Some of this comes from my experience. But the core of it comes from the teachers in my life, in their writings. The most recent of these is Metropolitan Anthony Bloom through his noteworthy book Beginning to Pray. The title itself speaks volumes beyond what I had expected when it was first recommended to me decades ago. I did not pick it up then. So humble a title brings a humble approach to a topic where we need it most.
Speaking to God is unnerving. Thank God He is low and humble, even as He remains All Powerful and All Holy.