Franciscan Spirit Blog

Let Us Pray: When Words Fall Short

Chapel in Sedona, Arizona | dimitar donovski via unsplash

How do I begin writing about prayer when I have not felt like praying?

It’s not that I’m angry at God. It’s not that I’m indifferent to prayer. But sometimes there’s a heaviness to suffering that only silence can hold. There are times when words fall short. Instead of rising from my lips, as my prayers once did, now they sink like stones, collecting on the ocean floor of my family’s pain. The tide betrays a rocky shore, remnants of my efforts, all those sunken words. In the morning, I’ll cast them into the ocean again. Grief, in this sense, is pure mysticism.

There is a weight to my words because my mom passed away unexpectedly last February. She was 60 years old—healthy with no existing medical conditions. But her pure and loving heart stood no match against a cardiac arrhythmia that took her in her sleep.

Just a few months before, we were dancing on my wedding day, all three of her and Dad’s children to be married within the same year. We felt that her best days awaited her, before a seeming glitch in the grand design stole her away.

As I write this, having found out two days ago that my wife and I will be having a child, I am simultaneously filled with wonder over the miracle of life and with a deep ache that just one more year with my mom would have fulfilled her dream of becoming a grandmother.

Some dreams will never be. There is no why, no explanation, no resolve. These are our own crucifixions. So, what does prayer look like when words fall short, in the anguish of our own Garden of Gethsemane? What happens when our words sink into a dense expanse and are coughed up with the tide?

Last summer, my wife and I finally went on our long-awaited honeymoon that the pandemic delayed. One day, the blazing sun in Sedona, Arizona, rose above the red rocks and invited us to a day of hiking. We soon discovered that surrounding wildfires had forced authorities to close the parks and trails.

We drove around dismayed, then saw a sign for a placed called the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Why not check it out? Our day’s plans had been derailed anyway. When we walked into the chapel overlooking the red rock buttes and scorching sandstone, not even the scrambling tourists and blatant disregard for “no photos” signs in the chapel could drown my awe.

As beautiful as the chapel and its location were, what captured my gaze was the 30-foot bronze crucifix raised high. It was almost as if Jesus’ broken body flowed downward into the golden trunk of a tree that climbed upward. Its branches stretched above Christ’s head, adorned with 12 leaves, paralleling St. Bonaventure’s image of the Tree of Life. Here was paradise and trauma intertwined, victory and horror colliding, Eden and Golgotha flowing outward into this very moment in time. Somehow, it was enough.

Wordless Prayer

We sat in a pew, somewhat distracted by the couple taking a selfie at the crucifix as if it were a national monument.

“Should we light a candle for your mom?” my wife eventually asked.

“Yeah,” I said, rising to my feet.

I lit the wick of a votive candle. My wife held my arm, “Do you want to say a prayer?”

“No,” I responded. I did not have the words.

Somewhat self-conscious that I could not even offer up a prayer for my own mother, we exited the chapel. I stopped when I saw a humble green statue that no one seemed to notice. It was St. Francis, always seeming to show up in my weakest moments, perhaps because he realized poverty made us strong in Christ.

Francis, one of the few saints depicted without a book or scroll in his hands, did his own kind of Lectio Divina before the crucifix. So did his spiritual sister, St. Clare, most notably before the San Damiano Cross. I could not utter a word in that chapel, yet I was taking part in a great Franciscan tradition without realizing it.

Sometimes icons, symbols, nature, and art can take us where words cannot. We read them by allowing them to read us. This, I think, is its own kind of prayer. On the way down the mountain, having felt something in my soul that had been mostly numb since February, I took a photo of the chapel.

My camera captured something I hadn’t noticed in the glare of the sun: a sun dog bending over the chapel, almost like an eye gazing outward toward the heavens. I look at the photo often. It reminds me of the bronze crucifix and its outward gaze upon my life, as the cross somehow contains all the prayers I cannot yet pray.

Let Us Pray

Suffering Christ, even when I
cannot feel you, I trust you are
near. When I do not have the
words, or when the words I
pray fall short of what I mean,
I trust you pray them for me. I
may not have the words, but I
offer you my gaze.

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12 thoughts on “Let Us Pray: When Words Fall Short”

  1. Lupita Montelongo

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful experience/story
    Your prayer is so touching, the words I needed to hear today
    God continue Blessing you????????

    1. Arlene B. Muller

      WOW! A very moving & transparent testimony!
      As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness when we have difficulty praying.

  2. God meets us in the silence on the sacred ground of each next breath God gives us.
    Thank you for your beautiful reflection.

  3. I went to Arizona and remember the Chapel of the Holy Cross. I remember being in a state of confusion and not understanding what was going one in my life. But the cross brought me relief. It was so wonderful to see and made my trip to the Grand Canyon a much better experience. As you said sometimes it seems hard to pray but when you need the cross the sign of the cross is good enough!

  4. The chapel and the Taize prayer service are not to be missed as they they are truly very spiritual and healing experiences. I wish I could share my photo of the copper St. Francis statue with the cross superimposed. It spoke to me also. Take your grief to cross and ask St. Francis to intercede for you as you make this journey. It is painful but you are not alone.

  5. Those wondrous moments of silence you experienced met with some unidentified pain or ache in my heart and found myself being comforted, suddenly embraced by God’s loving presence, with nary a word coming out my lips but tears of joy crowding my eyes.
    You are blessed. Thank you for sharing your blessing.


  6. The highlight of our Sedona trip. The crucifix is mesmerizing. So much meaning in its design. Makes one reflect on our relationship to Christ and His sacrifice for us. Loved the little St. Francis statue….my husband’s name is Francis. Would have spent more time there but too many “tourists” not cognizant of the spirituality of the place. Difficult to find a place for quiet meditation.

  7. Back in early ’97 my husband & I were on a two week vacation. (up til then we had always only gone for nine days or less) .As it turned out we spent the first week with friends in their Florida home. Everywhere we went we kept seeing spiritual displays. God seemed to be in every nook and cranny of our day. I really liked that cause I always pray that He will lead us to Him and let us help others in a special way–a kind deed, etc. The second week we were scheduled to spend on our own in a different area of the state. When we arrived at our first stop; we were right near a special church where we loved to stop to pray. I remember saying some special prayers for my parents who lived in a nursing home. They were both very ill and needed constant care. My dad had been close to death many times, but he seemed to be hang on when we left. Unfortunately, my dad took a turn for the worse. The home called me at 3a.m. to say they didn’t expect him to make it thru the night. My husband went to the airport real early in the morning to get tickets to go home. Before he returned the home called and said my dad had passed quietly. It took us til late that night to get home as the airlines had many delays due to an ice storm in Pa. It affected all the flights for several days. I believe God was preparing us for my dads death when He lead us thru the previous week. He works in mysterious ways. Praise His Holy Name

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