Past the words

This weekend I lived at beautiful St. Fidelis Church, situated unexpectedly on the Kansas plains. Oddly enough, I never went inside the church proper, but I’m told there’s a large mural behind the altar, of Fidelis being butchered by Calvinists. It made me wonder how many people have been dispatched to the merciful arms of God by wicked men claiming to do His will.

I spent a good portion of my time in a small chapel, learning prayers that preceded the Roman Catholic Church. I came with a great weight on my bones, a weight that overwhelmed me in that tiny chapel. I fell to my knees there, and prayed with quivering shoulders and trembling hands, done in by grief over the past, fear of the future, the knowing that this present ground is sand, that my feet must soon move forward or backward. Each way bears a cost; one of the great lies of men is that the path can be traveled without suffering. Another great lie is that we can stand still and read books and let our paltry knowledge carry us into the arms of God. We have to walk, with heavy, stumbling feet.

I prayed in that shadowed chapel until there were no words. I prayed beyond the words, into the silence. The silence is what we fear, the silence when the presence of God can neither be denied nor deflected with vain prayers and empty mumblings. I wept into that silence. I laid myself bare before it. I realized how little I know about prayer.

It’s easy to see why so many of us — Christians and pagans alike — spend lifetimes running from the living God, our hands stopping our ears, our mouths babbling prayers or blasphemies, all in an effort to avoid the great silence where God speaks to man. That silence is a fearful place, but there is love there, the great love of a parent. There is mercy too, and strength for the uncompleted race.

Who would have thought, those years ago when I first began to study doctrines, that they would all fall to dust on the floor of a little chapel in back of a church standing silent in the middle of America? I suppose He’s always worked that way, even with the likes of me.


  1. AAJD

    Unless I miss my mark, this entry reads cryptically but strongly like prolegomena to an Apologia Pro Vita Sua by one Anthony J. Woodlief?

  2. David Zailer - Operation Integrity

    I have spent many days alone and silenced in small chapels on the plains, both literally and figuratively. There, my diligence is shown to be feeble and pathetic. There, I find that my most honest prayers, start with something like, Oh s _ _ _ ! God help me! At the core of my angst, my sin of anxiety and my deepest longing come together and make what I believe is music to my Father’s ears.

    I appreciate you, Tony!

    David Zailer – Operation Integrity

  3. Tony


    I humbly suggest it’s more the hallway mutterings of one about to whisper the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

  4. AAJD

    Oh, very good. Of course, since it’s Great Lent, be sure to read the unredacted version of Chrysostom, that is, the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. The anaphoral prayers in there are especially overwhelming.

  5. Deb Johnson

    “We have to walk, with heavy, stumbling feet” and later “the great silence where God speaks to man”

    Beautifully stated.

    In the town were I grew up there is a beautiful old cemetery. It is where my brother is buried. There are massive trees and quiet walks. During the summer, my mother would ask me to water the flowers at his grave. I walked there countless times in the silence, crying out to God. In the silence I listened to God’s voice amidst the storm.

  6. Rick

    I’ve been away from the church for a number of years and have been contemplating returning… a post like this is like a gentle shove…

    Quick question… is Tony Catholic?

  7. Tony

    Deb, your comment is far more powerful than my inadequate words.

    Get thee to church, brother. And no, I’m not Catholic.

    I’m still trying to sort out my troparia from my kondakia from my pythagoras. The manuals don’t seem to help. So mostly I just listen.

  8. AAJD

    Yes, Eastern, esp. “Byzantine” liturgy, can be overwhelming on many levels–partly by design, partly by oversight. Sorting it all out, even terminologically, is not a small project. Let me know if you want any recommendations on texts or good background material.

  9. sjd

    The writings of Frederica Mathewes-Green especially The Open Door and The Illumined Heart have been especially helpful

  10. AAJD

    Frederica MG is good but very limited. Her work is useful if one has no knowledge of Orthodoxy at all and wants a quick, “friendly” introduction. Beyond that, she’s not entirely reliable, sometimes arguing positions that are flatly contradicted by Orthodox theology or otherwise untrue. A scholar she is not.

  11. Pingback: Praying Beyond Words – KH: The Blog

  12. Donna B.

    I hope you will not think badly of me for the following comment – I do not mean to disparage anyone’s belief.

    The problem I have with any or perhaps, all organized religion is words. While intellectually stimulating, the words of religion leave me confused at best. Perhaps they were at one time the words of God, but they’ve been filtered through so many human minds and hands I must wonder if they can still be considered His words.

    The few times God has ‘spoken’ to me, it has been in and with silence. Especially silence on my part.

  13. John A.

    “… learning prayers that preceded the Roman Catholic Church…”

    Oh really? Would those be Jewish prayers? Because there is no church before the Church — which Our Lord entrusted to Saint Peter. Matt 16:18, John 21:15. The Orthodox come from this same apostolic succession — but they split off from the See of Peter centuries later.

  14. Post

    John A.,

    As a student of church history, surely you realize that the sister churches of the great cities governed themselves by councils, until the folks in Rome advanced the novel notion that the Roman church was no longer first among equals, but entitled to full authority over her sisters. So indeed, yes, there are a plethora of Christian prayers that precede the Roman Catholic Church.

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