Worship Without Words

Speaking the Unspeakable

I have no idea what our house smells like, but I suspect it’s a mixture of dogs, coffee, lentil soup, and sweaty kids who don’t always remember to change their sheets.

Sometimes I can pick out these scents individually, but I will never be able to identify the overall eau de Runyan the same way I identify the signature fragrance of my neighbor’s house. I just know her house when I smell it, just as she knows mine. When immersed in the same sensory experiences day after day, it’s natural to stop noticing.

Worship without words means giving your body and spirit over to the senses ahead of the intellect, opening yourself to mystery.

The past several months, I’ve been exploring “worship without words,” specifically how the tunes I play on my fiddle—many of them from Celtic Christian traditions—inhabit my spirit and prompt me to consider attributes of God and faith without the help of lyrics. It’s taken some effort to articulate how and why certain ones stick with me, even change my point of view, while others do not. Sometimes the music becomes so ingrained in my muscle memory that I cease to think about it at all. In those cases, the music could mean either nothing or everything.

Worship without words means giving your body and spirit over to the senses ahead of the intellect, opening yourself to mystery. Words spell themselves out, so to speak, while music invites emotional connections that can’t always be defined. Worship becomes an act of humility as you lay yourself before God saying, “I don’t know what, but here I am. And most of all, here You are.”

Paying attention to the ways music connects me to God has led to other sensory experiences as well. I’ve mentioned smells, and I’ve mentioned coffee, so I’ll say this: the rich burst of life that emanates from a bag of coffee beans the instant I unseal it points to a wondrous Creator who awakens my soul. I’m not being tongue-in-cheek here—when I take a moment to inhale that coffee, I recognize God’s personal touch of refreshment and grace.

And that personal touch comes through, well, touch as well. Hugs and gentle hands on shoulders from friends and family become the healing hands of Christ. The warm and steady rise and fall of my rat terrier’s belly against my leg as I fall asleep at night reminds me that I dwell in safety, curled up beside my Father.

Art, of course, brings many people into communion with God, and not just the explicitly religious works. Roxy Paine’s giant stainless steel sculptures of trees speak to the Holy Spirit’s intricate branching and twisting through my life. Mary Cassatt’s mother and child paintings reveal tenderness and grace.


There’s the taste of a fresh orange.

The sound of your spouse highlighting pages in a book.

The sight of Canada geese arranging and rearranging their V’s in the sky.

The feel of a child’s hair in your hands as you weave a sloppy braid. 

Worship without words is noticing without always understanding, paying attention when you “don’t have time,” and giving yourself fully to your daily surroundings and responsibilities so you can see, hear, smell, feel, and taste what God has to say. For me, it’s not just playing music, but sticking my hands in the flowerbeds or slathering peanut butter on my 9-year-old’s sandwich. It’s giving myself enough time at the grocery store to find the face of Christ in the harried cashier who looks like she may have been crying.

Worship without words is a discipline, but it’s also an adventure. It’s erring on the side of reverence no matter what strange or humble or difficult task befalls you. To God, the most exquisite fiddler is nothing if the one holding the bow ignores the mystery and source of the music. He would take more joy in the one holding a toilet brush if the scrubber worked with dedication unto the Lord, perhaps thinking fondly of those living waters.

By all means, sing to God. Relish the rich words of Scripture and hymns. But also give yourself to worship’s countless other languages, and speak to God the unspeakable.


Click to read more articles in the “Worship Without Words” series.

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