Have you ever felt sorrow so deep, so excruciating, that words are almost impossible to say? For me, I find it hard to speak without sobbing in times of deep depression, sorrow, and grief. My throat constricts and it’s hard to breathe. Sometimes I have to focus so much on my breath or other calming techniques that it’s difficult to think about or do much else.
It’s in times like these that I am grateful for the Church. I am grateful for liturgy, for communal prayer, music, and movement. In these times, even if I cannot speak with my words, I can speak with my body. In times where my personal faith is weak or broken, my brothers and sisters pray and speak for me.
I noticed this succinctly one weekday afternoon. I sat in a midday service and the pastor asked us to kneel and pray to prepare our hearts for the sermon. As the congregation began to pray the Lord’s prayer, I couldn’t speak. My throat was tight and my eyes were on the verge of becoming a waterfall.
At that moment, as the congregation prayed out loud around me, I felt their faith carrying me in this dark night. Like the paralyzed man in Luke 5, my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, brought me to Jesus when I couldn’t walk to him.
And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” Luke 5:18-20
in that moment, I was incredibly grateful that our worship is not only something we vocalize through speech, that our prayers are not only words we say to God, but are also a physical orientation.
In her book, The Liturgy of the Ordinary, the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren speaks about a time when she could not pray. She had suffered a lot of loss and pain and to her horror, realized she didn’t have the words to pray. She writes,
“though words failed me, prayer without words—prayer in and through my body—became a lifeline. I couldn’t find words, but I could kneel. I could submit to God through my knees, and I’d lift my hands to hold up an ache: a fleshly, unnamable longing that I carried around my ribs. I’d offer up an aching body with my hands, my knees, my tears, my lifted eyes. My body led in prayer and led me—all of me, eventually even my words—into prayer.”
This is why I participate in a liturgical tradition. The Church gives us Christ through Word and Sacrament, but also through its seasons and its corporate prayer. Corporate worship and corporate prayer does not detract from my personal relationship with Christ but strengthens it. In times when I cannot speak, when I do not have the words to pray, or struggle with a weakened faith, my faith family carries me along to the mighty Healer. When I cannot find words to pray with my lips, the Church teaches me how to worship God with my body through kneeling, through making the sign of the cross, and through standing to praise.