The Paradox of Words, Part I

“I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is…It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.”

– Wendell Berry Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (p. 103)


There is no way to tell you about not using words, except with words.

Here is a simple story about Jesus from this Sunday’s readings:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

I am entranced by this and other verses that portray Jesus as going “out to a deserted place,” or up the mountain, or into the wilderness, to pray. There are many such passages and they are the primary evidence we have of Jesus’ prayer life. He prayed alone, often at night or very early morning, away from the people.

That the gospel writers bother to tell us this suggests that it was important and distinctive. Not once does the Bible say, “Jesus joined the crowd for the temple ritual.” Or even, “He went to the temple to pray.”

To pray – to be in communication with the divine presence – he goes to the wild places, alone.

What he did there is not a matter of record. But I have a guess. I’d bet that he walked “up the mountain” with thoughts, questions, ideas, and concerns roiling around in his mind and heart. At some point, I’ll bet, he became quiet in both body and mind. He entered into a deep stillness in which his communication with God – “Abba” – passed beyond words. Where he listened. Where his prayer transcended speech.

I find myself increasingly leery of church services in which we (the people – clergy and congregation) talk all the time. That is, in which we aren’t quiet and don’t listen.

Which is why our services at Church of the Woods include a lot of silence and solitude. And why the Kairos Earth education programs (coming soon – stay tuned!) will teach ways of being still and quiet, alone with nature.

When we teach, of course, we will use words, as I am doing now. Words – language – are among the great gifts of being human. They can open our minds, show us new ways, teach us things. Words allow us to record insights, accumulate knowledge, and pass along wisdom.

But words can also trap us in our own minds, as has happened with much religious belief and practice. I love and rely on the Book of Common Prayer that shapes the Anglican and Episcopal tradition, but too often, I think, our own words become the focus of our prayer. Which is a grave mistake.

I invite you to pray like Jesus prayed – to just listen, outdoors if you can. Leave words and other human constructs behind. Just be in God’s presence.

This is important. I think I’ll write about it.

 — Rev. Steve Blackmer

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