In my mind these days, I’ve got an earwig of Pete Seeger singing “Words, words, words” that I can’t get rid of. It makes me wonder: is it possible to be on word-overload? Since the year began I’ve had a chance to read some very good books—Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow and Lowry’s Messenger all come to mind—and I’ve enjoyed them a lot. I’m now making my way through Brian McLaren’s Naked Spirituality, which I think will probably also be well worth the read. As I read, though, I can’t help but feel dissatisfied with the words. Kingsolver has done a beautiful job of capturing so many key issues in our lives these days—climate change and education and the economy and logging and more—and Lamott is right that if we are allowing our true selves (as opposed to those we like to put forward) to communicate with God, most of our prayers would be variations of petition, gratitude or wonder. McLaren, so far, seems to be echoing what Lamott is saying in slightly different terms. And yes I agree with them. Yes, the environment matters a huge amount to me so thank you Barbara. Yes, I need to learn to say ‘help’ and ‘thanks’ and ‘wow’ more, so thank you Annie. But what I really, really need more than any of these words—beautiful though they are—is silence.
Words seem so inadequate for the pleading and sometimes the despair I feel around the destruction of monarch butterflies or trees or for the wonder I feel when I see birds gathered at the feeder or sun bouncing off the Palisades. Words as prayers, no matter how masterful the “pray-er,” seem wanting. They exhaust me. They try to capture me in them and reign in my experiences, defining them and making them much smaller. I want more and more to find ways to move beyond words, into the vast, encompassing, embracing silence. These days, I’m with Annie Dillard:
“The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega, it is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blinded note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.”