True prayer requires no word, no chant
no gesture, no sound.
It is communion, calm and still
with our own godly Ground.
- Angelus Silesius
On the Silent Wings of Prayer
What is it to pray? If we say the word ‘God’ to ten people in a room, then it is quite likely that in those ten different heads there will be ten different ideas of what ‘God’ actually is, and what God means to them. Perhaps prayer is like this as well. We have a general idea of what a prayer is. We think of an attitude of praying, and of reciting, either aloud or silently, either in company as part of a congregation, or in solitude, a formularized verse or passage of text. Or perhaps our prayer is in the form of a petition: we are asking for something of a higher Self beyond ourselves.
What that ‘something’ is might cover a spectrum of interests and hopes. On a rather material level, we might pray for victory in a conflict, or even success in some sporting event. On a more personal level, we might ask for help, or for strength and courage in a situation which we feel overwhelms us. We might ask to keep a dear one safe in a situation of peril, or for guidance in navigating our way through trying circumstances which bewilder us, and which leave us unsure which way to turn.
As well as the above examples there might be many more situations in which we pray, the form which our prayers take, and what we are praying for. But one thing which all these sorts of prayers have in common, whether spoken aloud or voiced silently within ourselves, is that they are all, in some form, prayers with words. We use our own familiar language in which to pray. But is this the only way to pray?
Prayer is prayer, and perhaps prayer can be reduced to intention only. Perhaps, if our intention is there, then we do not even need words to pray. In this sense, perhaps intention is the purest form of prayer: a silent connection with the Divine that not only is without words, but which goes beyond words, beyond the limitations of language to become a pure expression of the spirit. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore described trees as the expression of an endless striving of earth towards heaven. In this mystic striving of the forms of nature we may glimpse this wordless prayer, this intention of all things to connect with that mysterious Other, encountered in a place beyond words, beyond human language.
The other evening I watched a large flock of starlings wheel and turn in the soft light of dusk. What mysterious figures were they tracing out in the twilit sky? I could only stand in silence and wonder at the myriad pairs of wings turning in perfect harmony, describing their unknown language in the paths of their flight. I could not interpret their lace-like traceries, but in those many wings I felt that I had glimpsed a wordless prayer made visible.