I Hear No Voice (excerpt) by Timothy Jones
Going through some belongings the other day, I came across a book from my childhood.
Leafing through Prayers for Children struck me as it always does for the visuals on display—famed artist Eloise Wilkin’s chubby-cheeked children with a dreamy-soft focus to the colored pencil and watercolor illustrations.
As many times before, something in me went still when I opened the frayed edges of the cover. But I realized this time how The Little Golden Book’s well-thumbed pages also hint at the ways in which times for prayer leave us casting about for adequate words.
In one scene, Wilkins paints children running under majestic clouds that are dispersing from a darkened sky. While most of the pictures are saturated with light, and many of the prayers focus on child-friendly assurances about God, one entry, “Evening Hymn,” hints at what anyone might not see or grasp:
I hear no voice, I feel no touch,
I see no glory bright;
But yet I know that God is near,
In darkness as in light.
We will not, indeed, always hear a voice or feel a touch, much less see “glory bright.” The “prayer” suggests what faithfulness looks like when prayer seems hard. Even as we mature we get frustrated with words, like a child might.
There’s a good reason—a deeply theological one—that prayer sometimes seems hard and words seem inadequate and inelegant. The so-called apophatic tradition in Christian spirituality stresses how faintly our fragile words allow us to express the depths—or heights.
I used to see the apophatic stream as a gloomy reminder of what can’t be said or described. But lately I see how it gives us permission not to always have the words.
Still, we need help in conveying what’s on our hearts. We turn to a book of prayers. We gaze at moving illustrations. And here the kataphatic tradition gives us a complement. Images such as God as a Rock or God as my shield move words beyond the vague to the visceral. We even speak of a loving, divine Parent.
The saints knew this. Julian of Norwich’s writing is an immersion in vivid images: the everyday things you would find in a home or on a walk: a hazelnut, small enough to be held in a hand, coming with assurance that God held all things. Even more, she said, God “is our clothing that enwraps us … surrounding us out of tender love.”
Such language helped her pray and fed her intimacy with one she called our maker and “carer,” our “unending joy and bliss.”
The Rev. Timothy Jones is an American Episcopal priest who has found much insight and inspiration in Julian’s Revelations. He is writing a book on the Trinity, has written widely on spirituality, and blogs at revtimothyjones.com. Here's one that refers to Julian particularly.
Copyright © 2022 by the Christian Century. “I hear no voice by Timothy Jones is excerpted by permission from the December 15, 2022 issue of the Christian Century. To read the full article, click here.