I am increasingly convinced that some notion of a "prayer beyond words" is the deepest meaning of prayer, and why Paul tells us that we can pray "always" (1 Thessalonians 5:18 and Ephesians 5:20). Whatever we do, in conscious loving union with God and "what is," is prayer -- and the best prayer, for sure.
The problem, of course, is teaching Western wordy and over-thinking people how not to talk and not to think so much; it is usually not thinking anyway, but reactive commentary, and often narcissistic commentary, on some recent or upcoming situation. Oh, how long it took me to see that! Now it is obvious. This, of course, is very humiliating for people to admit, especially educated people and "proper" clergy persons. We really do like our thinking and our talking. It gives our mind and our mouth a job to do.
I love the quote from our American sage, Wendell Berry: "The mind that is not baffled, is not employed." The spiritual task of the mind is to be perpetually baffled, and baffled into silence, along with occasional utterances that come from such inner silence where there is nothing to oppose, promote or resist.
When Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, tells us to "pray in secret," and "not to babble on as the pagans do, who think that by using many words they will be heard," and to "go to your inner room" (Matthew 6:6-8), we have our first clear hints that Jesus' own prayer, and the prayer he taught to others, was first of all a prayer of quiet, a prayer beyond words, perhaps the attainment of a deep inner silence itself. Note how often Jesus "goes apart" or into nature to pray -- more often than any Temple or social prayer. It is almost culpable blindness not to notice this in the Gospels.
Then, in Luke's rendition of the one spoken prayer he taught, what we call the "Our Father," one could conclude that it is seemingly a concession to his disciples. They want to have a common prayer like the disciples of John the Baptist apparently do (see Luke 11:2). Such recited prayers are really necessary for the cohesion and common vision of most spiritual groups, much as we see in the "Serenity Prayer" of Alcoholics Anonymous and the sung, often religious, national anthems of many countries. Jesus gave them a social prayer they could share, but we have two different versions of that in Matthew and Luke, so apparently the exact words were not that crucial.
We do know that our over-reliance upon words and formulations has caused most of the antagonism and violence in the history of religion, which is especially strange for the Christian religion which believes that "the word became flesh" (John 1:14). We seldom burned people at the stake over correct or incorrect enfleshment (except as an excuse to burn them), but almost always over what they said, wrote or taught, in words.
This is very strange indeed, when Jesus himself never bothered to write anything, allowed the whole New Testament to be written in a language (Greek) other than what he actually said (Aramaic), and even allowed 30-60 years for that to happen! I believe this was all to teach us more humility about words themselves, which are always mere metaphors for reality. Jesus clearly showed a lot of disinterest about us getting his exact words. It is the inner silence that finally matters -- but words do point us there.
Video by Travis Reed and the Work of the People. View on Vimeo.
Adapted from the Foreword to 'Das Ruhegebet einüben' by Peter Dyckhoff, copyright © Verlag Herder GmbH, Freiburg in Breisgau 2011, 2013. All rights reserved. www.herder.de.