GodsBigBlog: Sister Barbara Hazzard — How to Pray Without Words

Buddhist prayer flags, Sikkim

Buddhist prayer flags, Sikkim

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

“Meditation, sitting in silence, is a prayer of faith. You totally let go of being in charge, which is different from what most prayer is about, because as long as we use words, we are in control. Most of us as Christians have been trained that prayer is talking to God. We feel the responsibility to do something, to be active when we pray, but in meditation, you enter it with the idea that you will let the Spirit transform you. You don’t talk, you listen.”

– Sister Barbara Hazzard, Roman Catholic.

What is prayer anyway? I haven’t a clue. These days, when I go to pray, I often  find I haven’t a thing to say to God. Every tradition I’ve come in contact with in all my years as a religion reporter and writer recommends — no, insists upon — prayer. Yet right now I don’t know how to do it. I don’t even know why to do it.

That’s the reason I find this passage from the interview I conducted with Sister Barbara so compelling. (The interview was for the book I’m working on, Finding Holy: True Stories of Religion and Spirituality in America.) Sister Barbara has had a lot of experience with prayer. A Benedictine monk,  Sister Barbara is the founder of Hesed, an urban, non-resident Benedictine community in Oakland, California, which  teaches and practices Christian meditation.

Rome's Pantheon: A pagan, then Christian, place of prayer

Rome's Pantheon: A pagan, then Christian, place of prayer

What I’m hearing when I reread these words of hers is that there are many ways to approach — to be open to? —  the sacred.

I  meet twice a month with a small group that calls itself EFM Lite. Most of us are graduates of a program called Education for Ministry, or EFM, which is a  four-year Christian theological education-at-a-distance program, involving mostly lay people, sponsored by the School of Theology at the University of the South. 

Our group has been reading Kathleen Norris’  book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith this past year. Now we’re ready to move on — to the topic of prayer. Each of us will lead an evening’s exploration of some sort of prayer (prayer in the very broadest sense of the word), and provide a short reading for the group to read ahead of time.

I don’t know where to start. Help!  I need suggestions and resources.  What is prayer anyway? Why do it? And how do you pray — with words, or like Sister Barbara, without words?

© 2009 Barbara Falconer Newhall

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  1. Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    hi Barbara, just visiting. Have fun with the new blog.

  2. Steve Gunther-Murpy
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    There is a Korean saying that says “Where words end, truth begins” and I think that the listening prayer, wordless and still, gets us closer to the Truth.

  3. Cindy Weyant
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Hi Barb! Good luck with the new blog. By the way, the way I pray is to have a conversation with God. This allows me to get those things that we don’t tell others off of my mind, and in a sense hand them over. And I saw your comment about why do we learn all this and then die? Well, think of death as not the END but the BEGINNING. Essentially, in my opinion, it is graduation day! All that we learn has a purpose. I consider this earthly existence to be a sort of “boot camp” for what is awaiting us. Enjoy your life, and continue your journey to learn and explore. There is so much, still, to learn.

    Hope your blog is big success. I will add it to my favorites. I am creating a blog as well, and will send you the address.

    Good luck!!


  4. Rich Gallagher
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Hi Barbara:

    As kids we never said regular prayers before bed but we memorized numerous basic prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Apostles Creed, etc.)

    Outside of mass where everyone prays together (prayers of praise, petition and gratitude), I mostly say silent prayers of gratitude daily and an occasional request that someone be healed or relieved of pain if it is God’s will. My lack of discipline has made meditative prayer unhelpful.

    Thanks for your blog,


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  1. [...] also passed along some thoughts on prayer from noted religion writer Karen Armstrong. Also from a Benedictine monk who talks about “prayer without words,” and a Native American who says if you’re [...]

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