Poet T. S. Eliot wrote that prayer is “more than the order of words in the mind.” Yet again and again we turn to some set of words, words provided by others or words of our own, when we set out to pray. This pattern makes sense: if prayer is about establishing and deepening a relationship with God, then we would of course rely on words for that relationship, just as words shape and grow our relationships with persons.
But the particular words and how they come together in prayer may be quite different than what we see in the words we exchange in our human relationships. For God is able to be present with us in ways we will not encounter with people, anticipating our desires, knowing our secrets, without those having ever been voiced. This makes prayer complicated.
For given God’s advance knowledge of even the very hairs of our heads, what is left for us to say in prayer? When the focus is contemplative prayer, the answer to that question would be nothing: no need to say anything, in fact words obscure the matters, and we draw closest to God when we rest wordlessly in silence, looking towards God. However, what are we to do when silence is impossible, when we carry too many fears and hopes in our hearts to remain silent before the One we most seek to share in them?
So we turn then to the countless words of prayers that have been created since humans first set out to approach God through prayer. The words are less for God than they are for us. Prayer allows us to know ourselves the way God knows us, through and through, in all our darkness and all our light. And as we come to know ourselves, we discover within us the God we have been expecting to find elsewhere.