Prayer — being at a loss for words

Evagrius speaks of the highest form of prayer (“pure prayer”) – as having three qualities: (1) It is “unceasing” (1Thess 5.17), (2) it is “imageless” (forms no image of God in the mind), and (3) it is “wordless” (it passes beyond the limits of finite words and concepts).

My guess is that “images” and “words” are linked. “Words” are inseparable from “images.” When we reach a communion with God that is outside the mediation of all images, that communion will be wordless as well, ineffable (not an experience of God ‘in’ and ‘through’ and ‘in terms of’ relating to words and their meanings). That’s my sense of what Evagrius means by prayer being “free of thoughts.” To say X is to take a step away from X. Think about it. So long as our experience of God consists in saying things to God about him, we remain a step removed from being (experiencing ourselves as) immediately present with/to him. When you think about it, the same is true of intimacy with other people. If you mouth is open and you’re spouting words, you’re not as intimate as you might otherwise be.

Not to be misunderstood, Evagrius advocated praying with words too (using the psalms, praying Scripture, etc.), a lot. So it seems imageless/wordless communion with God was for him the goal, but we must use words to get there. “Wordless” prayer isn’t something we just up and decide to ‘do’, i.e., it is not a refusal to use words. Rather, it is where one arrives from exhausting language (not refusing to use it) in the contemplation of God, experiencing transcendence as one comes to an experience of oneself in/with God that words can neither comprehend nor express (“joy ‘unspeakable’ and full of glory”?). Denys Turner says it well:

…You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God.

…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….

…the ‘way of negation’…is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.

Language ends but we keep going, not because language is false or untrue, but because there’s more to us (and God) than words. One still exists, just on the other side of the limits of finite images and words. This is why prayer is ultimately a subversive act in the world; it refuses to derive one’s essential value and identity from the politics or the market. “We” are more than words, so words have to fail at some point. For Evagrius, I think, it is only words in prayer that can get us to wordless prayer (the ineffable communion of the soul with God).

What I wonder about (and hope is true – because I love words and don’t want to give them up!) is whether when our experience of God escapes the confines of finite images and words, when we are comfortably wordless in God’s presence, we are still able to employ images and words to share, teach, celebrate with others, etc. Obviously this must be the case. That’s why mystical language (and poetry – and theology, at its best) strains the capacities of language so.

Fiending your presence


Addicted to the Presence I’m fiending,
Falling in love, I’m careening,
Feels just like I’m dreaming,
Hot under the collar, I’m steaming;
But I stay on froze, keeping my
Cool from the head to the toes, acting a
Fool among the friends and the foes. Never a
Tool for the lies that I oppose.
I can’t get enough. You betta know that,
Wanna reap all your grace, so I sow that,
Tryin’ to stay in the Big Picture, like I’m Kodak,
Love in my heart, exploding – no blowback.
I can’t let you go, because I
Have no other place to go, gimme your
Spirit, then I’m sure I’ll glow,
Teach me your wisdom, then I’m sure l’ll grow.

(Dwayne Polk)

Rachel Held Evans & God Held Rachel

RHELike others, I was shocked by the unexpected death of Rachel Held Evans – Memory Eternal. Rachel’s love for Christ was evident despite the controversy she provoked. She raised her voice sincerely in good faith, and Lord knows we need more, not less, of that. I admired her passion, her courage, her brute honesty, and the relentless clarity of her message. Nobody agrees with another person on absolutely everything, of course, so there are points of disagreement to be sure. But those differences are not relevant to what I want to say here.

Before I get to my comments, let me say that I was appalled by the uninspired comments of one person who responded to the news of Rachel’s death with a piece entitled “Heretical Author, Rachel Held Evans, Dead at Age 37,” in which the author included Rachel among the wicked in whose destruction the Lord takes no pleasure. I don’t care how orthodox your beliefs are, if the first word out of your mouth at such a moment is “heretic,” then heretical is what you are, for loving and compassionate Christlikeness is what sound doctrine are for, and the willful lack of it is a heretical betrayal of true doctrine, however faithfully one holds to it.

That said, I want to reflect on a something written by an ardent admirer of Rachel, a comment made by author and pastor Jonathan Martin. As most will know, Jonathan is lead pastor of The Table in Oklahoma City. He’s a gifted writer and speaker with an influence as wide as Rachel’s. The times I’ve read or listened to Jonathan (not a lot I confess), I’ve been blessed and challenged. Not knowing him, I have some hesitation about writing this, but the scope of his influence and the nature of his comments regarding Rachel motivate me to share. To be specific, after the news broke of Rachel’s untimely death, Jonathan wrote (his Facebook page, May 4th, 5:09 PM) the following:

I have not caught my breath today since I heard about the passing of my friend Rachel Held Evans. I am upended. I am nowhere near anything close to “meaning” in this yet. I keep thinking of Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, how the wisdom of God in pain is not in wise words—but wordless grief. There is a pain so sacred, even for God to proffer an explanation would be to blaspheme. There is a grief so profound, God falls silent. Jesus offers no explanations. The closest thing to an answer we are given is God…with…us, God’s face disfigured with sorrow. (Emphasis mine)

JonathanI don’t want to misunderstand Jonathan, nor do I wish to be misunderstood. I do understand the painful silence that death evokes in us. I’ve been there. I appreciate also that such silence is not the time to turn the pain of others into a soapbox to argue for one’s own theodicy. When we do that, theology itself becomes part of the suffering people seek relief from. To the extent Jonathan speaks from such silence, I’m entirely with him. The more silent and vulnerable we allow ourselves to be, the better off and healthier we are. Indeed, it is only in the silence and vulnerability which death evokes that God is to be found. We must each experience this for ourselves, and as one who has stood in the deafening silence of the Void with plans to dive into it headlong, the advice I wish to offer Jonathan is no mere academic exercise or soapbox opportunism. It is, quite literally, a matter of life or death.

What concerned me about Jonathan’s comments was not the honesty of his pain, nor his call to an appropriate silence, nor the sincerity of his love, but the despair (and I use the term intentionally in something like a Kierkegaardian sense) in his reducing God to the silence that death evokes. To suggest that God himself is struck silent by Rachel’s death, or that God is reduced to the same failure of “meaning” which we fall into on such occasions, or that for God to speak within our silent grief would be blasphemous even for God – this seems deeply wide of the mark. I respect Jonathan, and I respect the pain from which he speaks, but there is nevertheless a real failure of perception at work here.

God is not grief-stricken into silence by Rachel’s death, however we may feel, and this should come as a great comfort rather than an offense. Yes, God is “Emmanuel” (God with us). He is with us in our suffering, pain, and loss. And yes, the Incarnate God took the human journey from the womb through the grave to undying, resurrected life, so he knows intimately the conditions we face (Heb 2). But the Void did not reduce God to the silence of despair. “Emmanuel” does not mean “God commiserates with us.” That is not the logic behind the saving power of Christ’s suffering. On the contrary, as Christ, God speaks within the Void, unceasing in his speech, uttering his own triune identity and filial affection within the depths of human loss and abandonment.

a_light_in_the_darkness_by_abenteuerzeit-d5dlskcIf God is present in our silence at all (which he is, completely), he is present as God, that is, as the Father who speaks/utters his own Word, his Logos, his beloved Son, in and as and through and for all things. That is the Emmanuel who is with us. The Cross, then, is where God is this God on our behalf in the conditions of the Void, conditions that produce within us the silence of despair from whose deconstructing powers we are saved precisely because the Cross could not deconstruct Christ’s “Abba, Father” or wrest from Christ’s heart the filial affection that defined him to the end. But this is the very speech which, it seems, Jonathan makes out to be blasphemy were God to utter it in the face of Rachel’s death, the speech that God is, i.e., the Father uttering the fullness of his love in the Image of his Son, and the Son in the power of the Spirit replying “Abba, Father” within the conditions which in us occasion silent, existential foreclosure. But whatever else is lost, God cannot lose the utterance of himself in his own Son, nor do we lose our identity in that utterance (given us by the Spirit to know in Rachel’s death and in all our suffering, Rom 8.31f) when life suspends us over the empty abyss of the Void. Even there God is speaking, for God just is his speech, the uttering of himself – simply, infinitely, ceaselessly, completely, delightfully – as the mutual love of Father, Son, and Spirit. God is always saying at least that, but that is enough (2Cor 1). It is not an explanation, a theodicy, to be sure, but it is God uttering himself in us, for us, and through us.

I hope folks will not take me to be nitpicking over a minor, irrelevant point of trinitarian theology while we suffer Rachel’s loss. For in such circumstances, how we are in pain, and what constitutes our pain in light the gospel, are not irrelevant to our suffering. Obviously, Jonathan doesn’t think it’s irrelevant, for he chose to address it, to offer to us his perspective on the loss of Rachel, and even to speak for God by declaring the effect Jonathan cannot but imagine Rachel’s death has in God, namely, the same effect it had in him. So I feel permitted to raise my own voice (however insignificant it is) and offer a different perspective on where God is, and how God is, with us in our pain and loss. God is neither shocked, nor grief-stricken into silence, nor is he at a loss for words, nor is he like us waiting for the “meaning” of such loss; nor can the infinite delight of God’s undying life be blasphemous to a suffering world. On the contrary – if God were grief-stricken into silence at the death of every person he loves as infinitely as he loves Rachel (which is every person who dies, and which is every moment of every day), he would never open his mouth so much as to address humanity at all, ever. But he did, and he does – all the time.