How Shall I Pray? Spiritual Guidance For When Words Fail

When words fail, let silence be your prayer. Lean into the ministry of the Holy Spirit, trusting that even when we don’t know how to pray, prayer is happening. The Holy Spirit knows how to pray and is constantly interceding for us before the throne of grace with groans too deep for words.

  • When tears come, even when they take you by surprise, let them come and count them as prayers. 
  • Have the courage to mourn.  Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” What are we missing out on when we refuse to mourn but distract ourselves instead?  Cynthia Bourgeault points out that “when we mourn we are in a state of free fall, our heart reaching out toward what we have seemingly lost but cannot help loving anyway…mourning is a brutal form of emptiness but if we can remain open we can discover that to mourn is touch directly the substance of divine compassion.” Let’s try and keep our hearts open, even when everything in us wants to shut down. Do not underestimate the impact the images and the reality of unchecked violence is having on all our psyches. We are all managing anxiety that comes from a heightened sense of vulnerability and this needs to be mourned.
  • Practice lament—alone and with others. Cultivate lament as a place where you can express your grief and despair directly to God, and also where you can be prophetic in proclaiming, “This is not right!”
  • When you struggle to find words, consider relying on the words of others—from the prayers of Scripture, traditional liturgical prayers of the Church, as well as contemporary prayers.  Let these prayers express the things you cannot find words to express. 

Speaking of which, I offer this prayer from Every Moment Holy as a prayer that might gives us words to express at least something of what is on our hearts today.

O God our Rock,
hold us in this chaos. 

O Christ our King,
calm us in this storm.

O Holy Spirit,
Intercede for us.

Be merciful,
most merciful God! 

O God our Rock,
hold us in the chaos
of this hard hour.

O Christ our King,
calm us in the storm
of our distress.

O Holy Spirit,
   and intercede

We need you now,
most merciful God! 

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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Thank you Ruth. I have been praying with and for the TC community after learning this news. May God’s mercy uphold you all.

Thank you so much!

Thank You for this timely writing!

Thank you for this beautiful word this morning! “When words fail, let silence be your prayer.” Yes and amen! So important to lean in to the discomfort, the pain, the all… and to find God there in the midst of the darkness. God with us. Immanuel. So often, all I have to pray are my tears.

Thank you so much for sharing this, most especially in this season. I find myself longing to be distracted because pain and grief seem unbearable and because in the lament, I am seemingly so out of control, which is exactly where I need to be to fully release everything to Him.

Thank you for highlighting the temptation so many of us are experiencing right now– to distract ourselves instead of being present. My God grant us the grace to remain awake and alert to spiritual reality, even when everything us wants to turn away.

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