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The Prayers I Learned Not to Say

Silence is often a better prayer than words.

Published on:
January 16, 2018
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8 min.
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Five years ago, Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal was published. Discovered among other papers in her Georgia home, the Sterling notebook holds pages jammed with a loopy scrawl that bunches up against the lines and margins, as if the book can’t contain the intensity of her words. O’Connor kept the diary from January 1946 to September 1947 while studying in Iowa City. Each entry addresses God and carries a sense of pleading. (“Dear Lord please make me want You.”)[1] 

For years written prayer contained the fullest kind of communion with God—and then, somehow, it didn’t.

After twenty-two months the journal ends abruptly. The last sentence reads: “There is nothing left to say of me.”[2] It seems like she reached a threshold over which her words could carry her no longer. 

For over a decade I prayed like O’Connor. Not with her surprising blend of eloquence and urgency, which manages to link pigeon eggs and prayer in a single sentence, but by writing to God. In a file box I keep maybe fifteen old journals stuffed with prayers, thousands of moments of gratitude mixed with begging and shy adoration. In O’Connor’s journal I recognize my own attempts at intimacy, and my longing to speak to God directly through words. For years written prayer contained the fullest kind of communion with God—and then, somehow, it didn’t.

On a morning run through the park near my house, I overhear a group of women speaking in Spanish. They are seated on a bench under eucalyptus leaves. “Mira mira, no estaba así . . .” I miss the rest of the sentence as I pass them. Spanish is my second language, if you can call it that. It takes me several paces to piece together the meaning. Mira mira: look look. No estaba: it wasn’t (past imperfect). Así: like that. “Look look, it wasn’t like that . . .”

Spanish feels clunky on my tongue, but it wasn’t always that way. For a victorious span of two years I reached a level of comprehension that let me carry on most conversations with most people. I couldn’t talk theology or politics, but I didn’t need to. I had something I’d always wanted: the ability to step over a language threshold and meet someone on the other side. Now when I hear Spanish, I feel a bite of longing. 

If I spoke the language, I thought, I could enter this place.

I began learning Spanish in high school. In college I added a Spanish minor and spent five months in Chile—where people swallow the ends of words and don’t believe in using the letter S. From the beginning, the language’s grammatical nuances appealed to me less than its emotion. The sounds—exaggerated vowels, rollicking rhythm, those purring Rs—gave affection an aural container. Spanish opens a channel of intimacy between the speaker and the listener that transactional English does not. I’ve felt it in the way my Latin friends squeeze my arm or tack “mi amor” onto the ends of their sentences. 

But the real reason I followed Spanish down an overgrown path for years, through classrooms and countries and bumbling conversations, was the world it promised me. The language offered entry into rain-dampened cobblestone streets where steam rose into the air. It opened a world of woven blankets and fruit markets erected in the dust, of tiendas crammed next to each other and menus painted on their walls, of stray dogs parading down sidewalks and vendors selling hot rice milk from carts. If I spoke the language, I thought, I could enter this place.

Because I didn’t understand it like my native language, Spanish felt like a knot I could unravel with enough concentration, discipline, and time. For most of my life I thought the same thing about prayer. Prayer was a foreign tongue, but one I could master. 

When I turned twelve I began writing my prayers in a series of spiral bound, severely floral notebooks. This allowed me to record the day’s events and pray through ACTS—my youth group’s prescribed order of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication—at the same time. The habits of recording events and praying through writing persisted into my adulthood. If I prayed without the tools of pen and paper, my thoughts wandered away. My mind was a river that flooded its banks without the boundaries of a page to hem it in.

I longed to sit with Christ and not say anything at all, for a gust of holy wind to sweep away my many, many words.

I wanted to write my way to intimacy with God, but as I grew older, I wondered why prayer felt like calling out over a canyon. Was I using the wrong combination of praises and petitions? Should I speak them aloud and pretend Jesus sat next to me in the passenger seat as I drove to work? Should I use lectio divina more often or follow a liturgical prayer calendar? I flung every variation of prayer skyward and still intimacy danced away.

In my early twenties I entered two years of persistent anxiety, which culminated in the realization that my faith was more rigid and my view of God tinier than I believed. I craved a spacious way of understanding myself and God, a way to release control and float in the mystery of grace, more magnanimous and adamant than I could comprehend in the throws of my anxiety. Most of all, I longed to sit with Christ and not say anything at all, for a gust of holy wind to sweep away my many, many words.

 “Everything lately is converging,” I wrote in my journal. A hundred conversations had coalesced—through the phone, over email, in person—nudging me toward a wordless way of meeting God. People talked about resting in Christ’s presence and I wanted that, wanted to sit with him like I would a close friend. But I couldn’t remember ever resting in his presence before, just talking at it. I imagined that kind of rest might feel something like summer afternoons during childhood, when I played for hours on the warm grass of our backyard, climbing among the shadows of an apricot tree and gathering flowers, their faces tilted to the sky.

When I mentioned this to my best friend Katelin, she told me about a book she received from her spiritual director called Basking in His Presence: A Call to the Prayer of Silence. I ordered a used copy on Amazon for a penny. 

It arrived weeks later, the cover blazing in nineties-style glory with gold foil font and a painting of Jesus, Mary, and Martha. The author looked nothing like a mystic; his author photo featured him in an office wearing glasses and a tweed jacket.

Bill Volkman, the unlikely contemplative, offered advice for beginners of silent prayer. He suggested setting aside ten to fifteen minutes in the morning and evening to sit, nothing else. Stop the barrage of words and turn inward, he said. Rest in the presence of the God who dwells there. Let the Spirit pray through you. 

Mostly I sensed nothing at all.

I took Volkman’s advice on a spring morning. I adopted a lotus pose on our Ikea couch, legs crossed and back straight, and breathed in and out. My thoughts swam in different directions and I tugged them back for fifteen minutes. Volkman referred to this kind of prayer as “basking,” so I pictured tilting my face toward warmth. 

I repeated this routine for the next few weeks. Sometimes I sensed that I was moving deeper into myself. Occasionally I seemed to float, and my limbs released a tension I didn’t know I held. Mostly I sensed nothing at all. The silence created a vacuum within which I squirmed.

During this time I volunteered once a week at a charter school near my house. The school stood in the center of Barrio Logan, one of San Diego’s majority Latino neighborhoods, and most of the students were first- or second-generation immigrants. One day I bought snacks for the girls at a nearby grocery store. I was delighted by the store’s Mexican influence. A case of pan dulce stood where donuts normally reside. A kitchen prepared fresh tamales, enchiladas, and chile rellenos. By the soda machine, pitchers dispensed horchata and agua fresca. I was the only gringa in the store and the clerk greeted me in Spanish, which gave me a little thrill. 

“What did you bring us?” the girls demanded when I arrived, scooting closer on the classroom’s carpeted floor as I unpacked the food. 

“Pan dulce,” I told them, still on a high from my grocery store immersion trip. 

“What?” one of them asked as the others looked on blankly.

“Pan dulce,” I tried again, enunciating. “You know, sweet bread.” 

“Ohhh,” they chorused, and one girl repeated it to the others for clarification: “Pan dulce.” 

“That’s what I said!” But of course, I hadn’t—not like she said it. 

I sensed, just slightly, the relentlessness of God’s movement toward me.

 Learning Spanish was and still is, mas que nada, a lesson in humility. For someone who prizes words, struggling to form simple sentences is humbling. These days I take steps to preserve the language I have left. I switch my phone over to Spanish. I use language-learning apps. I text my Latino friends in their native language. I listen to Spanish podcasts and watch Spanish TV shows with English subtitles. I stumble over words and embarrass myself and still feel that press of envy when I hear it: rapid and fluid, vowels and consonants tumbling over each other like a stream of water over rocks.

Prayer in all forms is inscrutable, but especially wordless prayer. I continued to read Volkman’s book, and then another book on contemplative prayer, and then another. I set my alarm fifteen minutes early each morning and sat cross-legged on the couch. After two months I sensed a shift. This shift felt less like forward movement and more like an opening, as though God were prying a shell from me, cracking it open to let in air. It was just a piece of shell, but it stirred a breeze inside.

Over a few months the anxieties I’d cultivated began to dissipate. The grooves they wore in my mind grew smooth. I sensed, just slightly, the relentlessness of God’s movement toward me. The things I was coming to believe about God were ideas I had assented to my whole life, only now I touched them and discovered they were solid, real. One morning I imagined God calling my name. I called back. I felt the repetition of syllables under my sternum, our names thrumming from my center. 

Spanish has three words for language: lengua (literally “tongue”), lenguaje, and idioma. Lenguaje offers a general word for language, that is, the method we use to communicate with others. It encompasses the language of prayer, even wordless prayer, because it refers to a way of connecting that is not bound by words or national tongue. The word lenguaje makes space for communication by silence. 

“Latin people put down roots,” my Mexican friend told me as we sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the backseat of a van, bumping along a stone-strewn road in Oaxaca. The landscape around us was muted by the heat, the cactus and aloe plants gone dusty. I had asked her about the difference in communication between Latin and North American cultures. I told her I’d noticed a frankness and affection in Spanish speakers that is absent when they speak English. “Americans usually say more at first,” Julie said. “They have that initial friendliness. Latinos are more likely to say less but go deeper. They will put down roots in a conversation, even if they don’t say as many words. That’s where the warmth comes from.” 

“I like the Latino way better,” I told her.

For all its capacity to connect and generate and console, language has also humbled me. It has carried me to a threshold and placed me down, telling me it will go no further. The finitude of words has pushed me deeper into a space I didn’t know existed within me, a still lake of presence. There, my need to speak evaporates; I rest, instead, in God, the Spirit that resides within me. But even saying that lacks precision. The best I can do is say that sometimes when I read poetry, I make an involuntary noise in my throat. The sound is wordless—a hum, a song, an assent. It feels something like the prayers I learned not to say. 

Annelise Jolley
Annelise Jolley is a writer and editor living in San Diego. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction through Seattle Pacific University and her work has appeared in Brevity Magazine, Sojourners, The Millions, and Civil Eats, among others. She currently serves as the editorial director of Nations Journal. You can read more of her writing at annelisejolley.com.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 36.

[2] Ibid., 40.

Cover image by Dan.

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