Speechless. Mute. Shocked. Silenced. Awed. There are many descriptors for the feeling of not having words to express what's happening inside us.
Imagine a sunset that causes your breath to expand, your shoulder muscles to release, a gentle smile to lift, and an "ah" to escape with your breath. You turn to your friend to say something, but all you can find is, "Isn't this amazing!?"
Conversely, imagine receiving the horrible news of a beloved's accidental death: your breath becomes shallow, your body shakes, you crumple to the chair, and all you can say is, "No, no, no!!"
Or, also terrible, you speak up, and someone in authority discredits you or threatens to make you silent. Your words, your very being, are excluded, diminished. You might feel anger roil tightly in your body, or like you've been kicked in the stomach and lost your breath. In fear and pain, you quietly stumble inside, questioning yourself, your relationship, your faith.
When words fail and are unreliable for holding us near God, what do we do? It's time to notice how reliant we are on words and thinking to connect us with our God.
American Protestant Christians have a faith built on words—THE Word. Given our heritage based on the sixteenth-century Reformers' use of the printing press to bring sola scriptura into homes, it is no surprise that we rely on words to define, express, direct, and inspire faith. Add to this propensity our present-day word-filled media menu and the cultural expectation of ingesting and spewing words at rapid rates, and we have an imbalanced recipe.
Christians are to share the Word—Jesus—who is Life and Love. The Bible is the worded medium that brings us into contact with him, and so we study, pray, converse, and share on social media, all using the same medium—words. But it is the vitality of Christ's life living through us in action conjoined with the Spirit's influence on us that brings all these words into fuel for soulful living. We need and rightly rely on language and the Spirit, but eventually, we all find moments when words fail us.
What happens when you enter a season of silence? When others' words, even the Bible's, swirl around you, chasing each other in counterpoint, none landing helpfully in your soul?
I believe new birth is occurring. It is a time for acquainting yourself with the contours of a physical faith, lived in the body, connected viscerally to the Creator and Lover of your being. When words fail, you learn to follow your senses on your way to God. Here are some ideas.
You might find motion—like washing, paddling, kneading, walking, knitting, or dancing—brings an inexplicable sense of peace, welcome, or presence. Neurobiologists can now explain how repetitive actions such as these balance our brains and enable emotional processing, all in concert with our spirits. Remember, we are embodied spirits; thus, what happens in our bodies has profound connections with our spirits.
Alternatively, stillness might be the invitation for you. Stillness honors the silence within, creating a vessel to hold it hospitably. It is a physical expression of a trusting "yes, I am silent, looking to meet You, God, in silence." Especially if you find yourself overstimulated or overwhelmed, a habit of stillness, even five minutes a day, can bring refreshment. Breathing and becoming present to the moment can open a way to sensing the Word behind everything in a new way.
Art, appreciating or playing with it, can be a window for your soul, piquing the emotions that need to be present in your body before any words can be found. Often, at the end of a difficult day, I love to look at artists or nature accounts on Instagram as a way of recovering trust in our creative, beauty-making God. I gaze rather than scroll quickly, letting the colors, light, or detail minister to me. Sometimes, a surprising emotion will erupt; other times, it stills me into receptivity. Either way, my body responds, leading my soul.
And lastly, if you are in a bereft, isolated situation, acts of service can be the bridge your soul needs. In the physical action of giving or caring for another, our bodies remember how we are made to interact, bless, and participate in community.
These possible ways of entering the wordless space with faith help us practice trust in God during this disorientation. Even though God gave us the Word, that does not mean God is only present in words. Remember, the Word gives Life, which is lived viscerally and spiritually. The way to our spirits is through our embodied, physical lives, created in God's goodness and beloved, so take this season as an invitation to encounter the Spirit through your senses.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life."
How might your body lead you to God in a way that words cannot?
Kimberley Mulder is a spiritual director and writer with an MDiv and Spiritual Direction Certificate from Portland Seminary. She loves to hold sacred space for people to encounter God deeply as they walk and wrestle with the particularities of their lives within God's. Her presence and her words serve this purpose. She is particularly interested in cross-cultural and ecumenical experiences for the soul growth they bring, and loves to discover God's loving work there.