God truly has a sense of humor. Many people receive inspiration, words of wisdom, strength for the journey, etc. during times set aside specifically for prayer. Some receive this comfort while praying in church or at Eucharistic Adoration, others while praying in front of their private icon corner or home altar. For me, such times of comfort and inspiration typically occur while I'm in the bathroom. When I first learned of my mother's diagnosis with cancer and the subsequent prognosis, the grace to accept the harsh reality came suddenly while I was standing in front of a urinal. Inspiration has suddenly hit me while in the shower. More often than not it hits me while on the toilet. This is probably in part because I do a great deal of reading while on the toilet. With a three year old special-needs daughter and a six month old son, potty breaks are often the only quiet alone time I get during the day, and hence the only time for some brief reading and reflection - unless I'm awake ridiculously late like tonight.
Lately I've been struggling with mental exhaustion. With everything going on throughout my day even vocal prayer at some point just starts to sound like so much more noise in my mind; another thought among a legion of thoughts battling for my attention. I feel I can't pray vocal prayer any more because I just need a bit of quiet time, both exterior and interior. My wife and I often get this way with our relationship every now and then. Sometimes one of us will have had a particularly trying day where the kids have been making tons of noise, the phone has been ringing off the hook, the fire trucks and ambulances have been screaming up and down the road all day, etc., etc., etc. Then one of us comes home from work and wants to talk, talk, talk. With all the other noise that has been going on any further conversation is simply additional noise. How often have married couples said to one another, "Honey, I love you and I want to talk about this, but I really just need quiet right now." I know my wife and I have said that to each other many times. I also remember hearing my mom say it from time to time, if not to my dad, then to my siblings and I.
The same can hold true with our prayer life. Ceasing vocal prayer for a brief time doesn't mean ceasing prayer, just as spousal love hasn't ceased simply because a couple has taken a brief reprise from verbal communication. Prayer is ultimately a loving and attentive presence. We are present to God and He is present to us. A French farmer in Ars during the days of St. John Vianney was once asked what he did during all those hours he spent praying in church. "Nothing," he said, "I look at Him and He looks at me." How profound is the child-like faith of such humble people!
What sparked all this thought, however, was something I read (while on the toilet) from St. Theophan the Recluse. "If the mind becomes exhausted by saying the words of the prayer, then pray without words, bowing down before the Lord inwardly in your heart and giving yourself to Him. This is true prayer. Words are only prayer's expression and are always weaker in God's eyes than prayer itself" (emphasis mine).
This seems so totally obvious, and yet many of us, myself included, miss it. Prayer isn't merely a mental repetition of a formula that we have memorized. True prayer is a loving presence; the Lover being attentive to His beloved, and the beloved being attentive to his Lover. Vocal prayer arises out of that attentiveness to the Lover.
So the next time you're at prayer and you feel you've had enough and just need to "turn off your brain" for awhile, don't feel bad if you can't complete your vocal prayers, your established rule. Simply sit in silence, in God's presence, focusing your attention on Him Who loves you more than is fathomable.