Essay # 1
Why So Many Words?
By Bob Eldan
The other day I was sitting out on our deck behind our house when one of my favorite events took place. About twenty Canada geese flew overhead. I heard their honking for about a full minute before I saw them. Then they were so close above me that in addition to their honking I could also hear the whooshing sound of their wings as they cut through the air. After they were out of sight, the sound of their honking continued to mesmerize me till it gradually faded away.
I was out on the deck that day with the intention of praying. I was trying to clear my mind of distractions without much success. Then the geese came. Then like mystic magic my mind was clear. My mind was blank except for the moment. I was one on the wing with them. I was then able to move into prayer, prayer of listening, waiting. Not at the time, but later in reflection, I realized that I was not the only one praying. The geese were praying also. We were together in community. By being mesmerizing the geese taught me to listen attentively. And if we were together, were we not also together with the whole universe, from the distant unseen star to this our island home, this planet earth? When we pray we soar, especially when we don’t say too much. Just honk and up we go. Scripture speaks of God bearing us up on eagles’ wings (Exodus 19:4). Eagles have nothing over Canada geese.
When I was in grade school I attended religion classes at our local parish church. We were taught that there were four kinds of prayer: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication. I still believe that these are essential ways to pray. We need to esteem and worship God for who God is, even if we are not always sure who or what God is. This is what we need to do for ourselves. It is not what God needs. Or maybe God does need us. How could any of us know such things? Nevertheless, the mystery causes us to fall to our knees. (adoration) Who does not have much to apologize for, for the wrongs we have done and left undone, known or unknown. (contrition) We are so graced and therefore have so much to be thankful for, for the many things we hardly deserve, but enjoy none the less. (thanksgiving) When we look around us and around the world, we see so much need and suffering. We ourselves may need healing, and so we knock at the door of the mystery that we wonder about. (supplication)
These four kinds of prayer seemed to say it all for me. For many years I thought of them taking shape in words. After all we Christians are people of the Book. Look at all the words in that big book we call the Bible. There are also so many words as we worship, confess, give thanks, and petition. Why so many words? I don’t know. What I do know is that as I grow older I have less to say because I know I know less than I thought. I even have less to say to God – in words, that is. Francis of Assisi said that we should preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words. I like to paraphrase him to say that we should pray without ceasing, as Paul instructs us (1 Thess. 5:17), and if necessary use words. This kind of prayer of silence is sometimes called contemplative prayer, or centering prayer, or as the Buddhists like to say: mindfulness.
We are still going to need words. We are verbal animals. Corporate worship is valuable and needs some words to move it along. But prayer should be a dialogue between us and God. It is a conversation. If we are compulsively talking all the time how does God get a word in? God understands our words spoken in any language. However, God’s original native language is silence. God understands our words, and God also understands our moist eyes wet either by grief or joy, washed in tears or laughter.
In upcoming essays we will look at each of the four kinds of prayer mentioned above, and see how in each we can move from words to silence.