Part 5 in a series; see other parts here.
In Romans 8 Paul writes that we do not know how to pray as we ought. Our hearts teem with tangles and fullnesses that resist expression in words or even thoughts. Sometimes the only prayer we can manage is lifting the knot of feelings toward God and saying, “See!” I believe that God does see such prayers, and yet our minds, even below the realm of speech, operate through forms and concepts that give shape and meaning to our experience—an orderliness made possible only by leaving many, many things out. We inhabit the world in paraphrase, so how can we pray otherwise?
Paraphrase sounds like incompleteness, because it is, but we’re lucky that we can pray in paraphrase. The time for prayer is almost always shorter than we might desire: not everyone can be a monastic or even wants to. Perhaps it’s built into the very structure of time that we never have enough to speak ourselves fully to God or to anybody else. Prayer can slip us into a different temporality, giving us glimpses of fullness, but not even most prayers draw back the veil in quite that way.
Prayer, then, serves as a schoolmaster in our lifelong process of learning how to live with limitations and imperfection, even as its paraphrasal quality teaches us about God’s willingness to accept offerings that can never be complete. The Spirit does intercede with sighs too deep for words, and, as such, prayer can become an especially intimate encounter with grace. Prayer brings us before the cross, simultaneously showing us our weakness and revealing the strength that Jesus made perfect in weakness.
Prayer can also make us poets: once we realize the inevitability of paraphrase, we can enter in on the pleasurable work of giving form to our souls, one word at a time. George Herbert justly worried about “curling with metaphors a plain intention, / Decking the sense, as if it were to sell,” suggesting that “there is in love a sweetness ready penned,” but love turns out to be the hardest thing of all to speak or inhabit fully. In the poetry of prayer, we become co-creators with God of the loving selves we ought to be. Poetry is a medium all at once demanding and playful, and prayer is similarly the most serious and the most liberating form of speech. Grace gives us room to experiment with our paraphrases, perfuming the heaviest of all existential tasks with pleasure and joie de vivre. Prayer is what makes the poetry of our souls possible.