When I realized my prayer life needed more than resolve, I began to pray about praying.

When one of my sons was a toddler, recurring ear infections dulled his hearing and slowed his mastery of speech, despite his eagerness to learn. This made his part in our nightly prayer time a real trial. Micah had to take his turn after his talkative six-year-old brother, who managed to include in his prayers, it seemed, everyone he ever knew.

While Micah’s command of language was limited to a few words, he so longed to participate in our bedside ritual that he bowed his head and “prayed” in what can only be described as an unrolling string of wordlike sounds, a long stream of unintelligible syllables with all the inflection and rhythm of real language. In the dark of the boys’ room, the sound of his solemn, mumbling attempts left the rest of us alternating between stifled laughter and quiet awe.

To want to speak, but not know how, to want to pray, but not have the words, is a handicap that afflicts us long after childhood. It is painful to be speechless before God, to discover, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “that every call to [God] dies within itself.” For all my adult facility with language, I am still much like Micah when it comes to prayer.

I suspect that our failed attempts to pray more often lie partly in this dread of not knowing what to say, in our ambivalence about sitting still in God’s presence, unprotected by distraction, unhidden by the facile words that seem to get us by in everyday speech. Like the writer’s proverbial blank page waiting to be filled with prose, the prospect of addressing God can intimidate us into silence. It is easier, some days, to avoid completely trying to piece together the words. Only the specter of ...

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