Praying when we cannot find the words

For years, I condemned myself for my discouragement in prayer. I would cringe whenever someone asked how my prayer life was. In response I would mutter some vague statement or issue an affirmative grunt. What was I to say? How was I to describe those long seasons where prayer felt more like a chore than an act of loving devotion? And let’s be clear, these seasons occurred even after I became a priest.

We can spend an exorbitant amount of time condemning ourselves for feeling dissatisfied with our prayer-life. Our discouragement in prayer drives us from prayer rather than into it. We tell ourselves all sorts of lies such as “I’m doing something wrong”; or “Prayer just isn’t my thing”, or “I fail.”

What if we saw things differently? What if we chose to see our frustration in prayer as an invitation to journey deeper with Christ? Discouragement in prayer, after all, is rooted in a desire to pray, and a call to pray. In fact, discouragement in prayer testifies to the fact that we understand prayer rightly.

If this is the case, how might we go forward? Is there a way to engage in prayer in those times when we don’t know how to pray, or even what to say? If we see our discouragement as a divine invitation, is there a way to accept this call and journey deeper?

One of the ways to do this is to engage with the Psalms. The psalms are the prayers of the faith community. They have governed the prayer lives of God’s people ever since they were penned. In fact, when Jesus hung on the cross, it was a psalm that was voiced on his lips. In his darkest of places, Jesus did not feel the need to create a highly spiritualized extemporaneous prayer. Instead, he rested upon the words of scripture. He allowed the prayers of the faith community to form his prayer. When we are in our times of discouragement, we can do the same.

We all experience times when we feel unable to pray. Either we feel a lack of spiritual energy, or an inability to find appropriate words to form our prayer. This is a normal occurrence in the Christian life. And while we may feel like we cannot pray, this is a lie. We can pray in these times. The beauty of prayer is that our own voice of prayer takes place amid the cacophony of prayers throughout heaven and earth. In all places, in all times, the church is at prayer. This means that in the times when I cannot voice my own prayer, I can rest upon the prayer of the community. I can join another person’s song, allowing their words to become my own.

Take the words from Psalm 143:7-8 as an example. How might these words be your own?

Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit falls.

Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the pit.

Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust.

Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.

Psalms and liturgical prayers are written for our aid. They help us move through our discouragement by giving us a language we can use to interact with our internal state. Rather than removing us from the dynamic of prayer, they imbed ourselves within it. When we truly allow the words of the structured prayer to be our own, this increases our experience of prayer. We find our own voice. So, in those times when we don’t know what to say, allow the Psalms to be your voice. You just might find that you are able to pray more deeply than you thought.

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