Today let us talk about prayer. Here is one thing we can agree on: very few of us are satisfied with our prayer life. If you are totally satisfied with the quality and the quantity of your prayer, then I apologize because this homily has nothing for you. However, most of us, when it comes to communication with the Divine, feel inept, bumbling, woefully inadequate, and those are the ones who are trying to pray!
For many prayer consists of a list of petitions and requests, (Please heal aunt Eulalie, help cousin Tim find a job, please end the drought, etc, etc.) and occasionally some bargaining: “I promise I will stop punching my sister if you help me past this test” kind of thing. But we know instinctively that this sort of shopping list approach to prayer is inadequate, because it leaves us unsatisfied. Imagine how God must feel about it.
There are some people that are gifted with a great ability to pray, who have a facility at communicating with God, who are open and free and wonderfully conversant with God. There is a story about an old man – a rather poor and uneducated man - who spent many hours in church talking with God. And the pastor would see him sitting there after Mass, slightly moving his lips, apparently in serene contemplation. And it intrigued the pastor how someone so uneducated and so unsophisticated could be so deeply in communication with God. Finally, after a long while, the priest approached the man and said, “Excuse me, but I often see you sitting here praying. What is it you say to God in all this time?” And the old man explained, “Well, I say to God that I am a poor man, uneducated and simple, that I don’t know how to make the words of a beautiful prayer. So I tell God, I will give you the letters and You form the words, and then I say A, B, C, D, …”
Most of us stumble and bumble when we attempt to pray. But the Good News today is that we have help. St. Paul, in our second reading today to the Romans, tells us: “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought,” Even St. Paul, it seems, needed help in his prayer. But we have that help in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now the Holy Spirit is the love that is breathed, or “spirated” (as in respiration) between the Father and the Son. So this Love that binds and unites the Father and the Son together in the Trinity has been poured out in our hearts so that we too may enter into the intimacy of that Trinitarian relationship.
Inadequate as we are to love and to pray as God does, we are assisted by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
St. Paul tells us: “the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings ….” The NRSV renders this more felicitously as “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” This language is evocative of a very deep, very intimate, communication. This is a union with God that fills every part of our being, that unites us in every part with the fullness of Life. It is, of course, what we all long for, it is the super-abundant satisfaction of all our longings and desires. That is the goal of prayer: union with God.
The Holy Spirit is our teacher and guide and help in prayer. What we need to do is get out of the way of the Holy Spirit at work in us. What gets in the way is our ego, fear, laziness, and sin. We want to pray for what we want, not what the Spirit within us wants to pray for. We may want to pray for a pay raise, or to win the Lottery, but the Spirit within us wants to pray that we be more generous in sharing the resources we already have with the poor. Or we may want to pray for a calm and easy life, free of troubles and conflicts, when the Spirit within wants to pray for courage to speak the Truth, especially when it is difficult and costly to do so. So we need to get ourselves out of the way.
St. Paul says: “And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because he (the Holy Spirit) intercedes for the holy ones (that’s us!) according to God’s will.” According to God’s will, not according to mine. There is the rub.
God wants to be in communication with you. God has gifted you with the Holy Spirit so that you can truly - and even freely - do that. In “sighs too deep for words” the Holy Spirit groans within you calling out to God.
Trust the gift of the Holy Spirit within you. Listen. And if you don’t know what else to say, say “A, B, C, D …” God bless.