Birds flying from trees
Franciscan Spirit Blog

Praying without Words

Sep 8, 2021
Photo by Dimitar Donovski on Unsplash | An architectural accomplishment courtesy of Richard Hein, August Strotz, and Marguerite Straude, the Chapel of the Holy Cross lies on the side of a butte near Sedona’s gateway, complete with 360° views of the surrounding landscape.
Mired in grief, a writer finds a measure of peace in a desert chapel.

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?


Desert Healing

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.

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.

A Prayer of Silent Trust

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.

This first appeared in the pages of St. Anthony Messenger.

Subscribe to St. Anthony Messenger!


David W. Gregory, OFS
Wed, 09/08/2021 - 09:15 AM
David W. Gregory, OFS
What an inspiring story. There are times when the words will not come, but Jesus knows what I want to say. Thank you so much for the story.
Arlene B. Muller
Wed, 09/08/2021 - 09:18 AM
Arlene B. Muller
A living testimony/illustration of St. Paul's words in Roman's 8: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness..."
Mary. Diaddigo
Wed, 09/08/2021 - 09:32 AM
Mary. Diaddigo
Thank you. I needed this today. There are times when my heart is sad for no particular reason and I have a hard time praying. And sometimes I just say to God that I just can’t pray right now and I ask for forgiveness. Your words helped
Salvatore G
Wed, 09/08/2021 - 10:01 AM
Salvatore G
Thank you, Stephen, for a beautifully written story of a kind of pain and disconnect that I sometimes feel. At those moments I pray for strength to seek refuge in His arms.
John J Boucher
Wed, 09/08/2021 - 10:24 AM
John J Boucher
Lord Jesus, praise you for the darkness deep, pain without release, confusion whose talons dig deep into our souls. For without the dark how could we ever recognize the light? Come, "Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'." ( Mt. 1:23)
Jim Myres, OFS
Wed, 09/08/2021 - 11:43 AM
Jim Myres, OFS
May the peace of the Lord be with you I have a new go-to prayer. I don't know where I heard it, but it was in a homily recently. That prayer is: "I believe" Peace my friends.
Michelle O.
Wed, 09/08/2021 - 08:07 PM
Michelle O.
We've all been there at some point. Thanks for putting pen to paper. The Holy Spirit gives us, me,words to say when I don't even know what to. God bless you!
Agnes Gabriel
Wed, 09/15/2021 - 12:22 AM
Agnes Gabriel
Thanks for sharing with us. My husband passed away in February of an unexpected heart attack, and we had been happy with our lives. I remember the joy we had celebrating the Christmas season and thereafter. He died on Ash Wednesday and I felt broken, thinking: Is that what God wants me to give up for Lent? I am still struggling with having to live without him around. My friend gave me an image: I have been leaning on a wall, knowing that it is always behind me. Now the wall is gone and I feel lost. The Holy Spirit sustains me during the periods when I feel darkness. I try to look for blessings every day, thanking God for someone or something. May God be with you in handling your grief.
Betty MacDonald
Wed, 09/15/2021 - 09:45 AM
Betty MacDonald
Thank you so much for sharing your pain at such a time of loss and grief. My husband received a diagnosis of terminal cancer in February - it was a bolt out of the blue as he had not been sick at all til a sudden pain in his chest and the diagnosis was cancer of the esophagus that had spread already to his liver and kidneys. The months that followed at our home and then our cottage were days that I was finding prayer so easy. I prayed for a miracle of healing but God's will not ours be done. God's will was not to heal him and when he passed away Friday, September 4th just a short 7 months later it was the most painful thing but at the same time a blessing as God did give us time to let him know how much we loved him as we cared for him at home til 2 days before he passed he was taken up to Pallative Care in the hospital. Since that time the grief overwhelms me at times and there are times there are no words so I offer God my tears sharing with him my pain and sorry but my gratitude that he listens event to my tears and understands
Rita Firkus
Wed, 09/15/2021 - 10:16 AM
Rita Firkus
Having lost my own healthy mother suddenly last January and then my uncle in August suddenly, and my father of sepsis infection in November, I truly understand your pain. Your story and your prayer brought tears of remembrance to me. god bless you on your journey of Calvary.
Hubert Myo
Wed, 09/15/2021 - 10:57 PM
Hubert Myo
What an inspiring and intrigued real life story! It strengthens me very deeply and heartfelt thanks to you. Me too, remember the unfulfilled wishes of my parents who passed away in 2019 and in 2020: Only nine months distanced. The prayer you shared will surely help me serene in my untold sufferings by gazing at Crucifix.
Wendy Shank
Fri, 10/01/2021 - 10:42 AM
Wendy Shank
Stephen thanks for putting words to this experience and your grief. It is a long journey. I am nearing 30 years past my mother’s death, which happened while I was pregnant with Jared, who will be 30 next spring. To this day — even this morning it happened— something touches me (a song, a film, a poem) and the grief shudders through me again. It almost reassures me now: I have not forgotten her, and I will see her again; it’s getting closer year by year. I’m currently memorizing the book of John, and chapter 11 has been a gift: “this illness does not lead to death; it is for the glory of God” … “Lord if you had been here…” “when he saw Mary weeping… deeply moved…Jesus wept” … “did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” … “Unbind him and let him go.” So much there to grab a hold of. FWIW, I had a similar reaction to that chapel a few years ago (including the distractions of selfie-snapping tourists INside the chapel .. really??) And I remember St Francis (a lá kachina?) standing out there in the garden, as he is inclined to do. A gift of architecture, that place.
Lisa Michael
Fri, 10/01/2021 - 03:48 PM
Lisa Michael
Dear Stephen, as always your Mom is so proud of your words from heaven, I just know?. Thank you for sharing your thoughtfelt words with us. I feel the same about my missing best friend, however I do believe her good heart is definitely waiting in heaven and we will see her again. She will be watching over that grandchild forever…… keep believing ?

Add new comment