Groaning our Prayers
GUTTURAL, LOUD, GRAVELLY DEEP IN MY THROAT, resonating in my chest and abdomen, emptying out a big belly breath to the dregs, sometimes a word or two but mostly beyond words—that’s a whole body groan. Groans are a natural human expression of pain, of despair, of grief, and they happen even in life-giving childbirth. Groans speak the language of suffering.
A friend casually introduced me to groaning as an intentional practice some years ago like it was no big deal. I was surprised and intrigued. She’s an RN who works with cancer patients in many phases of their living and dying. I know she’s compassionate and present to them. She’s heard a lot about their suffering. Rather than carry it home, she sometimes practices groaning during her solo commute. Since she first mentioned it, I’ve been learning how to integrate groaning with prayer.
What Makes It Prayer?
It’s been a stretch. It’s not pretty to pray this way. No formula or sweet words sugar coat a raw reality. I feel exposed and actually a bit embarrassed to be so honest with what’s in me. When I intentionally open this roiling mess to God, it becomes “prayer” in the widest sense. I’m expressing gut-wrenching emotion toward the Source of all Love. I’m trusting the Spirit to help make sense of my “groaning too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Often there’s a quality of “Why?” or “How long, O God?!” in my heart, like the Hebrew prophets (see Habakkuk 1). Or my groan might turn toward a growl, with anger rising toward others, a situation, myself, or even toward God. The Bible does that too, so I trust God can take it (see Psalm 22). The emotional nakedness of lament can be humbling, reorienting me in a kind of right size or more real relationship to the Maker of the Universe.
I groaned in spiritual lament when my sister had a dangerous case of COVID-19, when the son of someone I companion in spiritual direction died of a drug overdose, when immigrants at the southern border of the U.S. are held in cages, when children are gunned down in schools, and when Black people are murdered by officers of the law. And now, I groan for families torn apart or killed in Eastern Europe.
Some Gifts of Groaning
For years, I’ve encouraged others to groan their prayers as they’ve faced losses, betrayals, and terminal illness. I’ve experienced how groaning our prayers opens and frees us in surprising ways. For those of us immersed in Western European cultural norms, big emotions can be frightening. Groaning in prayer offers a kind of container to help us face what’s hard. We can give ourselves permission to groan for 3 minutes or 10, or until we feel “finished for now.” We can try it alone in the shower and let the water wash it down the drain. We can find a quiet grove of trees solid enough to absorb it. Or we can moan together in trusting groups.
Turns out that groaning has measurable physiological benefits. Newer research complements ancient wisdom from other parts of the world. Through the vagal nerve in our parasympathetic nervous system, we can trace connections between the brain, vocal cords and gut that are activated with groaning, sighing, humming and more. There are vocal Yoga and Qigong practices, as well as secular options for “sound healing”.
Trust is Key
But we don’t need a formal process. Leaning on trust—both of the body and our relationship with the Holy—is the key to groaning our prayers. When you need it, may you remember groaning as a Life-giving response. May you know God is with you there.