A young man came to my office years ago looking for help with his marriage. An older friend had recommended me because “Pastor Keller is really good at prayer.” I was surprised and a bit flattered by the recommendation but also confused. How would someone know that I was “good at prayer?” The young man clarified his friend’s recommendation, “When you pray in worship you seem to say the right phrases and words for talking to God.” The young man continued, “So I am wondering, could you pray for my marriage.” I did pray with him, asking for God to intervene and restore his marriage. A few months later I learned that his divorce was finalized.
I remember that story not so much for the outcome but for that recommendation (and my reaction) based on my public prayers in worship. As a pastor I am often asked to pray in public setting and I normally comply with my best words and ideas for addressing God. Recently I prayed at the dedication of new fire station and felt honored to be part of a simple civic ceremony. Yet, as the years go by, I wonder if all my words are becoming more of a barrier than a bridge to communion with the Divine Mystery that we so easily call God.
The barrier question is definitely part of my personal devotion. For many years I have kept a spiritual journal, pouring out my thoughts, feeling and concerns to God on the written pages. At times these words helped me come to some clarity in my relationship with God, yet often the writing just seem to stir up the dirt and garbage inside, like shaking a jar of glacial river water and seeing all the silt swirling around in the jar. It is only when one sets the jar of river water aside and allows the glacial silt to settle does the water become clear. That has been my discovery with silent contemplative prayer. I need to stop the swirling words and allow the sheer silence of God to speak (I Kings 19:12).
I have learned that I am not alone. In his book. Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes,
So often in Christian liturgies I find myself gasping for breath because I am suffocating on words! Christian prayer, especially liturgy, is so verbose. . . . God is Mystery and must remain so — the unknown part of God is much, much larger than the known part we are expressing in our prayers and services. Our words don’t seem to respect that Mystery not just in their quantity but in their quality. . . . Words are not only always inadequate in expressing the Divine Mystery, but they can actually be impediments to experiencing the Divine Mystery. . . . In my own personal practice of prayer I have grown to feel the need for silence.” ( page 136)
Paul Knitter is not alone. Ruth Haley Barton, an evangelical Protestant, writes in Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
In silence we begin to recognize that a lot of our God-talk is like the finger that points to the moon. The finger that points to the moon is not the moon. Pointing to the moon, talking about the moon, involving ourselves in study and explanation about how the light of the moon is generated is not the same thing as sitting in moonlight. It is the same with God. Our words about God are the not Reality itself. They are only the finger pointing to the moon. In silence we give in the fact that our words can never contain God or adequately describe our experiences with God. When we give in to the exhaustion that comes from trying to put everything into words and mental concepts, we give our mind permission to just stop. We give ourselves over to the experience of the Reality itself (page 75).
Enough words for today. May I recommend that you seek some silence for your soul.
Hi Pastor Keller, I find it very interesting regarding your comments in what you are changing and how you are changing in your life. You are a deep thinker. If I think too deep I become depressed. I guess how we do and think are never right for one person, it is how you perceive what you are hearing from God. I always look forward to your words as they are always thought provoking. Thank you. Virginia Pleban