“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
-Hamlet (Act III, Scene 3)
I was fourteen when I first saw Hamlet, and though much of the meaning passed over me in a whelming flood of poetic language, I was nonetheless arrested by the play’s opening as fog steals silently across the ground for the scene which sets the whole plot in motion. It must be night. It must be cool and humid. There is something eerie afoot. You can sense it in the atmosphere. A ghastly anticipation rises as the spirit world intersects and overlays the physical one; and fate begins to wind the wheels of Hamlet’s life into motion. The ghost of the king is about to make himself known.
Sometimes when we pray the Holy Spirit slides unnoticed into the room like fog along the ground and changes the whole atmosphere. We can sense the shift; the transformation in the people who are praying around us. They are no longer merely people who entered clothed in winter coats and cares, but those who have been radiantly transformed and speak in the oracles of God. Anticipation rises as the veil between the spirit and the material world shows itself to be gossamer thin. God is listening— and not only listening, but incredibly— it even feels as though He is adding His amen. The words prayed are no longer just words, but become heavier things—weighted with purpose like a cup filled to the brim with water.
I’m always surprised when God shows up to pray with me like this. This experience of Him makes me thirsty for more of His presence; for prayer that enervates, rather than a rote experience of the words without thoughts that barely make it out of my head, let alone all the way to heaven. And I long for that feeling—as though a divine hand has laid itself upon my shoulder—and suddenly I’m praying things I’ve never thought of before and believing with earnest faith because they resound with the clear ring of truth.
But it isn’t always like that. More often than not, it is prayers that evaporate in the yawning face of sleep, and or get shuffled in the deck of thoughts that I deal throughout the day. I want more of God Himself, but I get more of me, instead. If I’m honest, sometimes I don’t want God to show up and start talking when I’m about to fall asleep. I don’t really want to hear from Him when I’m getting my day sorted out. I want to leave Him a spiritual voicemail and then He can get back to me with His specific answers to each of my requests when it is convenient for us both (but mostly for me).
The difference in those prayers, it seems to me, is anticipating His presence and not just the answers that He could give. It is so easy to focus on the problems at hand that need a God solution; rather than to expect the presence of the God for whom nothing is a problem. For truly, when God shows up, the normal rules no longer apply. Perspectives are dynamically changed by the Unchanging One. No one will drop off to sleep when the Holy Spirit speaks. No one will forget that they are praying and start composing a grocery list instead.
The truth about faith is that when you start to look for God, you begin to hear Him moving just beyond your sight. Anticipation grows as the mist of His presence descends while you are still straining in the dark to see Him. The night begins to flee; the true light of dawn is breaking. There is something holy afoot. You can sense it in the atmosphere as you begin to realize that there is no veil between the spiritual world and the one you live in. The circumstances that masqueraded as random hardships begin to look like plot. Soon, the Holy Ghost of the King is going to make Himself known.