How do we pray to God when we simply don’t know what to say? Some of the hymns in Singing the Faith offer a clue.
Charles Wesley, inspired by the words of St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (6: 10-20) has a cheerful, no-nonsense attitude towards prayer. “Pray, without ceasing, pray, / your captain gives the word” (StF 528). Likewise, in a hymn of invocation to the Holy Spirit, the Revd Fred Pratt Green, impresses on us the task of prayer, no questions asked: “Let every Christian pray, / this day, and every day” (StF 388).
For a person of faith, the commitment to prayer in one form or another is indeed generally taken for granted.
Nevertheless, there are times, as a number of contemporary writers, emphasise, when it is difficult for us to know what words to use. “I should like to speak to you, / for I know you’re there!” writes Joy Webb (StF 522). But “every time I try, I find / it’s hard to make a prayer”. She wonders if God can see what she is thinking – if God can look into her heart; find her hopes, dreams and moments of despair – and accept these thoughts as a prayer.
To Joy Webb’s tentative, heartfelt questioning, James Montgomery’s “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire” (StF 529) seems to offer a helpful response. In his attempt to describe what actually happens when we pray, he asks himself the question, “What is prayer?” He offers a range of answers, as if he is mulling the question over and viewing it from different angles. Prayer is “the soul’s sincere desire, / uttered or unexpressed” (v.1), he concludes. It may be formed in words that are very simple or in “the sublimest strains” but prayer is not only an expression of words: it is “the falling of a tear” or simply the sound, the emotion, of “the contrite sinner’s voice”. Words, in other words, are not always required, and God understands that.
That fact is implicit in Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
In a prayer based on ideas in that psalm but addressed to the Lord Jesus Christ, a member of the Taizé Community in France prays: “Let not my doubts and my darkness speak to me” but, rather, “let my heart always welcome your love” (StF 360).
Marjorie Dobson adds detail to this Christian understanding of God’s loving response to human needs. She recognises that, especially in tough times, we often lack the right words to express our feelings but that God takes our inadequacies out of our hands by responding to our needs even before we articulate them: “Searching God, you find us when we go astray… Suffering God, you lift us from our deepest grief…” (StF 524, vv.2&3).
Listening God, you hear us when we cannot speak, Marjorie Dobson writes.
These hymns suggest that “prayer” is shorthand for our desire to communicate with God and God’s ability to share the divine dream with us. It is, says James Montgomery, “the Christian’s vital breath” and God hears us breathing even when our thoughts remain unspoken in words.