An elderly woman recently broke down during Confession and began sobbing. She had attempted to offer to God what she felt was her sinful neglect in raising her son. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, she had taken him to church services on Sundays and feast days, and each day she had prayed with him and for him. Apparently, she had done all she could, gently and supportively, to lead him into life in Christ, with a serious and deep reverence for the Orthodox Christian faith.
Now that he was in his late thirties, with a failed marriage behind him and no apparent connection to the Church, his mother was heartbroken. Her grief was compounded by guilt, since she was convinced she had somehow failed both him and her Lord. She asked the priest hearing her confession how she should now pray for him, especially since he was about to embark on a second marriage with a woman who had even less interest in the Church than he did.
The priest tried to suggest ways she could focus her prayer. In the weeks that followed, he kept in touch with her, only to hear that she felt she couldn’t pray at all, that she didn’t have any idea as to how she should formulate prayer that would speak both to her son’s need and to her own. She tried spontaneous intercession, then her well-worn prayer book, then psalms, chosen for their emphasis on suffering, loss and grief. When she returned for confession a few weeks later, she felt she needed to add to her original burden the dryness of her prayer. In particular, she found she couldn’t pray for her son at all without interrupting her petitions with weeping. She wanted desperately to ask God for help and guidance in her prayer as well as in dealing with her son’s situation. But she found she simply couldn’t pray. The words just didn’t come.
More dramatic experiences of this kind occur especially around unexpected loss or a tragic death. A man who is the sole breadwinner for his wife and children gets laid off at work. A family receives a visit from the military, informing them their son was recently killed in Afghanistan. Or the baby a young couple has just brought into the world turns out to have an untreatable and lethal genetic defect. If these families are firmly rooted in a particular faith tradition, they will most naturally begin by praying about the crisis that has just impacted their lives. But very often the prayer seems inadequate, even empty. What does one ask for? How does one formulate a request that sufficiently describes the situation at hand and appropriately requests that God provide some answer? And how does a family pray for a child who has just been killed, or for a parent suddenly carried off by an unpredictable fatal illness?
These are examples that point out what we all know: that sometimes we find ourselves at a loss for words when we want most earnestly and explicitly to pray for someone or some thing that is of crucial importance to us. It can also be difficult to find appropriate words when we begin for the first time to develop a pattern of regular prayer. But there we have resources at hand that can help structure and provide content to our prayer: the Scriptures or a traditional prayer book, for example, together with the sound advice of spiritual teachers. (In this regard, I often think of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s reply to a woman who complained of difficulty in beginning to pray. When more traditional means don’t work, he told her, it can be enough to sit in front of an icon and knit, leaving spiritual growth and inner progress to the Holy Spirit.)
There are other times, though, when a crisis or ongoing stress creates a stumbling block in the way of prayer, to such an extent that we feel we can’t pray at all. Again, the words are just not there. We don’t know how to formulate what we need; we can’t even discern an appropriate way to express what we feel. “Ask and you shall receive,” the Scriptures tell us. But how do we ask for some gift of grace, or solution to a problem, or relief from the suffering of acute loss, when we can’t step back and away from the tension and chaos we may feel, in order to put that request into coherent words? How does this woman pray for her son, estranged from the Church? Or the parents for their teen-ager who is being brought home in a coffin? Or the young couple for their terminally ill newborn? Grief has a pernicious way of stifling prayer, since it attacks on the level of both mind and feelings. Where, then, does this leave us?
It’s especially important in times like these to remember that God knows each of us to the very depths of our being. Nothing is hidden from him: not our sinfulness, nor our longings, nor our grief. In fact he knows them, and us, better than we ever can. He not only knows them, but he carries in himself the burden of our sin, the awareness of our needs and desires, and the suffering caused by our loss. This means that he does not need for us to formulate our prayers as if to inform him of our situation. It means that in times of stress and chaos that are so devastating that our minds can’t function well enough to formulate what we feel we want or need, that is no impediment to God. In those moments, it may be far more appropriate to stand before God in silence. Stand “with the mind in the heart,” fully confident that God understands our needs and desires, and that he wants nothing more than to address them directly and in such a way as to further us along the way towards salvation. If any words are required at all, they are simply “Thy will be done!”
Two quotations in particular speak to this question and provide a fitting close to what I’ve wanted to say about prayer “when words don’t come.” The first is a reflection by Metropolitan Anthony, mentioned earlier, and the second is from the sayings of one of the great desert Fathers.
“Prayer is essentially standing face to face with God, consciously striving to remain collected and absolutely still and attentive in his presence, which means standing with an undivided mind, an undivided heart and an undivided will in the presence of the Lord; and,” the Metropolitan adds, “that is not easy.”
Abba Macarius was asked, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man said, ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.” And if the conflict grows fiercer say, “Lord, help!” He knows very well what we need and he shows us his mercy.
 A. Bloom, Creative Prayer (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, Ltd., 1987, 2004), p. 26; B. Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (London: Mowbrays, 1975), p. 111.