We have been reading or hearing from the beautiful chapter 8 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans during this month of July. In it, St. Paul teaches us about the spiritual life of the Christian who is living in the grace of God. But Paul makes it clear that the spiritual life of the Christian does not just mean prayer. Two weeks ago, the reading brought us to consider the presence of the Holy Spirit in the bodily life of the Christian. Last week, what we heard emphasised how the moral and spiritual life of the Christian affects directly the health and purpose of the created world. It is only on this third Sunday in July that St. Paul speaks specifically about the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life of prayer.
The word “prayer” can refer to a set of words or thoughts, e.g. the Our Father. It can also refer to the activity of praying as when we speak of our “prayer life.” Finally, it can indicate the person who is praying, the pray-er. If we fit all three meanings into one sentence, we could say: the prayer prays a prayer.
St. Paul tells us, though, in today’s short reading that we suffer from weakness in all three of these senses of the word prayer. Our weakness is the result of our fallen condition. We are simply not able to pray as we ought, either in terms of the act of praying or in terms of what we pray for. Even the Christian who is living in grace is simply not equal to the task. Our mortality, our sinfulness and the effects of these on our hearts, minds and bodies weigh us down, even as our desire is to raise our hearts and minds to God, as one classic definition of prayer puts it.
And it is to this condition of weakness of ours that the Holy Spirit of our baptism and confirmation comes to help us. All he needs to detect in us is the desire to pray properly. No sooner does he detect it than, with supreme gentleness and power, he enters into that desire to sustain and support us.
When you and I come to pray without using fixed formulas, like the Hail Mary or Our Father, we are often at a loss as to how to begin, what to say, what to ask for, how to ask for it. We want to pray properly yet despite the books we may have read or things we may have heard or the retreats we have been on or the programmes we have watched, we get a kind of “stage fright” when we think of ourselves standing alone and directly before the gaze of God. It is when we go out on that stage and have to start singing solo that we can most experience our weakness and incapacity.
Enter the Holy Spirit! In an episode of Father Brown I watched not long ago, Lady Felicia, the local lady of the manor, is to sing a solo in the parish concert organised by Father Brown’s parish secretary, Mrs. McCarthy. Before the event, Lady Felicia is full of self-confidence (a bit too much!) but, for reasons I won’t repeat here, when it comes to the night itself, once on stage she can’t get a note out. Mrs. McCarthy sees it straight away and, from the sides, she comes out beside Lady Felicia and tells the audience, “I forgot to say that this is not a solo item but a duet”, and then begins to sing until Lady Felicia finds her voice and they go on together.
Well, we are Lady Felicia! And the Holy Spirit is Mrs. McCarthy! When we find the courage to go to pray, the Spirit immediately comes to our help. We must of course let him in, or better, let him out, let him sing up from deep within us. This is why at the beginning of our time in prayer, we should start by asking very simply for the Spirit to come to us, or to make himself felt within us. In fact, you could even say that, like Mrs. McCarthy before the concert started, it is the Spirit himself who encourages and inspires us to go to pray in the first place. When the Spirit is given free reign within us in this way, then no matter what we say or how we say it, it is he who will take us up into his prayer to God the Father through Jesus.
So, what does the Spirit say, exactly, and how does he pray within us? Our reading this Sunday puts it this way, “the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words.” But if we go to the original language, we get a better sense of the strength of what the Spirit does. It says, “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” If you remember, in last week’s reading, St. Paul describes creation and our mortal bodies as groaning in one great act of giving birth to attain the freedom of the children of God. This week, St. Paul takes all of this up a level: it is the Spirit himself who groans in our spirits. He himself takes up our cause. He is the Advocate or Paraclete, in this sense, as Jesus promised. Like a father guiding his little child on his first bike ride, with his arms ever ready to support and catch him if he falls, the Spirit embraces our spirits from behind, you might say. It looks like we are riding the bike, but it’s the Spirit’s legs pushing the pedals and his arms are guiding the handlebars. Yet we are the one moving along.
The inexpressible groanings of the Spirit are nothing to do, of course, with our groanings, our sense of frustration and powerlessness. St. Paul uses the word to indicate the empathy and compassion of the Spirit with us in our weakness. He comes down to our level and scoops us upwards and forwards with those celestial wings of his, be they of the dove or of the eagle. Remember, too, that the Holy Spirit is always the Spirit of Jesus. From Jesus he learns, as it were, how to enter into our weakness, as Jesus himself did on this earth. Like Jesus, he does not crush the bruised reed or quench the wavering flame; in other words, he does not despise our efforts to pray or deprive them of the value they have in themselves. On the contrary, he goes with them and takes them up and makes them capable of reaching the throne of God, much as Jesus takes up the bread and makes it become his very risen and glorified self.
St. Paul then gives us the most beautiful and astonishing reassurance about our prayer in the Holy Spirit. First, let’s recall something Jesus said just before he taught his disciples to pray the Our Father. He said, “your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him.” St. Paul echoes this when he says, “God knows everything in our hearts.” When we go out on that stage to sing, he knows the melody and lyrics we intend and the others we don’t even realise we have within. And so, it is the Father who sends us the Spirit to move us into the duet. In some ways you could even say that the Father gives the Spirit the words and the melody to sing that he, the Father, wants to hear. But he does not do that despite what we intend to sing, as if our desires and efforts meant nothing. No, he does it knowing what is in our hearts. In that way, the Spirit will pray in the soul in a way that is according to the mind of the Father. The Spirit will teach us what the Father wants for us in our need. The Spirit will transform and inspire our prayer to be pleasing and effective with God. He will purify our imperfect or mistaken intentions. He will lead us to sense and to understand with spiritual insight what it is that the Father desires to give us. And that will always be far greater than what we can possibly ask or imagine.
As you can see from St. Paul, prayer is something far more wonderful than simply reciting prayers, important and necessary as these also are, not least because many of them have already been inspired by the Holy Spirit. And yet the Spirit desires to take us much further into the inner dialogue within God himself. Our I-Thou relationship to the Father or the Son in the Spirit will lead us to a four-way conversation of inexpressible groanings within the life of the Trinity itself. Eventually, of course, that conversation will open out to include every human and angelic person in communion with God once the shadows and groanings of this world have passed away.
To pray, then, is to get ready for eternity. It is the natural activity of the son and daughter of God that we are. The true Christian cannot not want to pray. Prayer provides depth and purpose, focus and direction, inspiration and courage to who we are and to our lives, and indeed it is a major vehicle by which God purifies, sanctifies and glorifies us. So, get out on that stage of prayer as often as you can, stage-fright or no, and let the Spirit breathe deeply into you and through you the eternal life and love of the Blessed Trinity.
I will end with a quotation from a Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross on the matter of the soul seeking union with the Trinity in prayer: “The soul united to God and transformed in him draws from within God a divine breath, much like the most high God himself. And God, abiding in the soul, breathes forth the life of the soul as its exemplar. This I take to be what Paul meant when he said: Because you are children of God, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, “Abba, Father”; this is what takes place in those who have achieved perfection. One should not wonder that the soul is capable of so sublime an activity. For if God so favours her that she is made God-like by union with the most Holy Trinity, I ask you then, why it should seem so incredible that the soul, at one with the Trinity and in the greatest possible likeness to it, should share the understanding, knowledge and love which God achieves in himself. … O my soul, created to enjoy such exquisite gifts, what are you doing, where is your life going? How wretched is the blindness of Adam’s children, if indeed we are blind to such a brilliant light and deaf to so insistent a voice.”