Deeper Than Words

A shimmering ray of sunlight brushed across her thick black hair. It slanted onto the table near the hard wooden chair where she sat slumped in sorrow. Her head was bowed and tears were flowing freely down her cheeks. She was surprised by this new and unexpected surge of grief. She thought it was over, yet here it was again. Another flood of sadness suddenly sweeping over her like an unwanted house guest demanding to stay another day.

She had been venting her frustration and disappointment when she was suddenly surprised by the surge of sadness that slipped through her words of impatient annoyance. Perhaps it was the compassionate gaze, the nod of understanding, or the soft word of kindness that shifted the conversation from frustrated resentment to silent sadness. The shift filled the room with a new way of being together, a new way of sharing. Something Sacred seemed more alive. Something Holy seemed more present.

The Sacred Presence was silently there, of course, in and through her words of righteous indignation and familiar frustration, but after the venting and tears, there was a deeper, unspoken awareness of something more alive in the room. As she regained her composure and continued the conversation, she said she felt somehow freer, more peaceful, more able to face yet again the challenges still before her. She still felt the pain, but somehow it had lost some of its power. It seemed less overwhelming and controlling. Something Else seemed present in and through her pain.

There had been no mention of God or prayer in the words that had passed between us. There was no verbal mention of the Holy One invisibly flowing in and through us. After our opening silent prayer, our words sounded like a conversation one could easily overhear in a coffee shop or café—just one friend venting to another. So was this really spiritual direction? Can it possibly be spiritual guidance when neither the Beloved nor prayer are mentioned, or only acknowledged near the end of our time together?

Is spiritual guidance only or mainly about the words we choose or is it something more than the words we use to verbally steer a conversation towards God or prayer? Are the words just one way to consciously slip into the silent ocean of Holy Life together, but not the one and only way? Is it possible for the living God in me to speak to the living God in you even though we are not talking about the Holy One? Is it possible for prayer to be happening even when words about prayer are not even mentioned?

To ask the question in a slightly different way, does the Beloved alive in me commune with the Beloved alive in another or others without our conscious awareness? Can our spiritual hearts be in transfiguring conversation even when our analytical minds are focused on something seemingly different? Can we be talking about something not immediately and verbally connected to God or prayer while something deep, prayerful, and transformative is going on in the secret levels of our beings?

Can the Holy One be secretly freeing something within each of us even though we are not verbally, or perhaps even consciously, connecting this healing gift with Divine Life? Is this another way God’s loving Spirit prays within us even when we not aware? These questions keep living in me as I reflect on my spiritual guidance ministry.

I am not saying that words or awareness don’t matter. They do. They are not, however, the whole story, it seems. The flow of God’s compassionate mercy and liberating life cannot be totally controlled or contained by our words or awareness.

Perhaps when our spiritual hearts are “turned Godward,” as Evelyn Underhill says, the Spirit’s healing work can happen even when our words or awareness are distracted or focused in other ways. Perhaps even when our minds are kidnapped by content or heightened emotion, our spiritual hearts can be free and open to the Beloved’s larger life. Not always, but at least sometimes.

Perhaps a daily habit of openness to Gracious Presence frees something within us that is conveyed despite our words or conscious awareness. Our presence and being in God can speak in ways that touch in and through our words. Perhaps this is why Jesus could just walk by the Sea of Galilee, ask Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew to “Come, follow me,” and they left their nets at once. It is perhaps why James and John were also willing to leave their boat and immediately follow after Jesus. Perhaps we too can have in some much smaller way a living Presence within that speaks to the living Presence within another in holy wordless ways.

The image of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon comes to mind. This ancient icon conveys the power of deep, wordless communion and union. It beautifully suggests Divine prayerful communion among three equal energies of One Holy Life. The empty space in the foreground invites us to join this holy communion in an intentional, ongoing way.

Perhaps when this wordless image lives within our spiritual hearts for years, it and far more importantly, the Holy Life flowing through it, quietly transfigures something within us without our knowing. Perhaps when we are with another it is possible to slip into this larger Divine union because we are being gifted with loving Presence in this particular moment.

As John of the Cross suggests, our not-knowing (and not-saying) is perhaps important, even crucial, at times. If we knew or said, maybe we would interfere and slow some piece of the Divine, liberating flow. Instead we are gifted with a glimpse of one silent, unsuspected way the Beloved’s Love secretly flows through pain and brings to birth hopeful new life. Instead we are blessed with ever deeper trust in the vast, mysterious depths of a silent Loving Life.

This article first appeared in Shalem’s FY16 annual report.


October 10, 2020 by Liz Ward
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