English mystery writer Agatha Christie is treasured for the detective stories that got her dubbed the “queen of crime.” Waxed mustache and all, Hercule Poirot, the professional sleuth who appears in more than thirty of her books, is considered one of the most enduring characters in fiction. He is remembered as the egotistical Belgian detective who solved multifaceted cases with the help of his “little grey cells”; he is also an amusing source of useful quotations. In one of his meticulous investigations, Poirot tells his sidekick, “There is nothing so dangerous for anyone who has something to hide as conversation! A human being, Hastings, cannot resist the opportunity to reveal himself and express his personality which conversation gives him. Every time he will give himself away.”(1)
If words betray the inmost secrets of our hearts, prayer is the conversation in which hidden things—and the one hiding—are most laid bare (but hardly in the same sense as Poirot imagined). God does not find things revealed as we speak; our words are not inspected for God’s own sake. The conversation is more of a mystery than this. God is the revealer; our own anemic words, God translates to ourselves.
In a poem simply titled “Prayer,” C.S. Lewis explores the mysterious exchange between human hearts and God when we pray.
Master, they say that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since you make no replies, it’s all a dream
—One talker aping two.
They are half right, but not as they
Imagine; rather, I
Seek in myself the things I meant to say,
And lo! The wells are dry.
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The Listener’s role, and through
My dead lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.
And thus you neither need reply
Nor can; thus, while we seem
Two talking, thou are One forever, and I
No dreamer, but thy dream.(2)
The Christian story purports a God who not only hears but also speaks on our behalf. Likewise, Paul writes, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.
In prayer, as in a deep well, God probes the depths of us. As we grow in faith and conversation, we learn to put before God what is in us (and not what should be in us), unable to resist the opportunity to reveal ourselves and so be revealed. “God searches the sources of the rivers” said Job, “and brings hidden things to light” (28:11). Hinted at beyond our words are the sources of the rivers within us. Sometimes slowly, sometimes torrentially, these waters God makes known, plunging into areas that have grown stagnant, dredging streams and renewing life within us.
Moving among our words, whether unuttered or expressed, God shows us not only what we mean, but more importantly, the one who gives us meaning. Taking our broken thoughts and fragile lives, God stirs within the prayers of God’s own, searching hearts, revealing what is hidden, and showing us Father, Son, and Spirit.
Written by Jill Carattini
(1) Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders, 1936.
(2) Poems, Ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), 122-123.