Spiritual Practice

When Words Fail

Sarah Arthur

devozine Depressed TS 101094617Several years ago, I went through a season in which migraine headaches regularly laid me up. Unable to move or open my eyes, I would lie flat on my back in bed for hours. My only coherent thought was Make it go away. I had to concentrate to turn the demand into a request: “Jesus, help me.” There were simply no other words.

A young friend of mine has been confined to a wheelchair since childhood. She is often gripped by muscle spasms that make it difficult for her to breathe. In these moments, the only words she can formulate are “Don’t leave me”; and she repeats them over and over again as a prayer. When no other thoughts are possible, those three words connect her like a lifeline rising out of the murky ocean of pain to the ship of God’s presence.

Many of us have experienced the blank terror that emerges when pain or depression shoves every other thought from our minds, when we can think of nothing except making the pain go away. Even worse, we often feel cut off from God because we are unable to form coherent prayers.

More than Words

The Bible reassures us that prayer is more than words. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” writes the author of Romans 8:26–27 (NRSV); “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” God is listening not only to our words but also to our hearts. Even when we are unable to speak, God hears us.

When we do grasp for words, our prayers do not have to be eloquent or long. Ancient Christians said a simple prayer called the Kyrie Eleison, which in Greek means “Lord have mercy.” As they breathed in, they prayed, “Lord have mercy,” and as they breathed out, “Christ have mercy.” The Kyrie Eleison is a way to pray when you can’t seem to string words together on your own.

I have found this prayer to be a lifeline when pain or fear sets me adrift in a sea of jumbled thoughts. Once I cling to it, I am suddenly aware that Jesus is with me. He has been there all along, but now I have a grip on his hand.

Like “Jesus, help me” or “Don’t leave me,” the Kyrie Eleison is a prayer of desperation, a cry for help. The difference is that it can be prayed for others as well as for yourself. Is a parent struggling with the loss of a job? Lord have mercy. Is a friend moving away? Christ have mercy. Even when we can’t find the words to pray for others, we can focus on what is important.



Pray the Kyrie Eleison (“Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy.”) every day this week, when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. Use it as a breath prayer during the day. Then, the next time you are tempted to panic, instead of blathering on or being unable to pray at all, pray the Kyrie Eleison. You may be surprised how naturally the words come to mind when things get rough.

Sarah Arthur is a popular author and speaker and is passionate about youth ministry.

—from devozine (January/February 2007). Copyright © 2006 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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