The Gospel is too long, and already has it’s interpretation within it. So I thought today we would look at the second reading, from St. Paul to the Romans. Paul begins: “Brothers and sisters: The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;” Hmm, as an American male – and now a resident of Texas - I don’t often talk about, or even admit, my weakness. But in St. Paul’s spirituality, coming to grips with your weakness is very important. Christianity is all about salvation, and you can’t appreciate the salvation Christ brings until you realize the mess you are in and your inability, your weakness, to escape it. Otherwise Christianity is pointless.
John Henry Cardinal Newman, the great English churchman and writer, wrote: “This is why many in this age (and in every age) become infidels, heretics, schismatics, disloyal despisers of the Church .... They have never had experience of God’s power and love, because they have never known their own weakness and need.” This awareness of our weakness and therefore our need for God’s help and salvation is so important that St. Paul even writes: The Lord “said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." And St. Paul comments: “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Cor 12:9-10) Instead of denying or downplaying his weaknesses as I do, St. Paul rather boasts gladly of his weaknesses!
So first of all we have to own up to our weakness. And once we start looking it usually is not too long before we start discovering some. But St. Paul assures us, “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;”
Where and how does the Holy Spirit come to our aid? Perhaps the Holy Spirit prompts us to greater generosity in the face of need, helping us to overcome our stinginess, as in today’s special second collection. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit fortifies us to tell the truth when it is difficult to do so. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit inspires us to say a comforting or healing word to someone who is sorrowing. Or the Holy Spirit might strengthen us to reach out in forgiveness, or avoid that porn site, or relinquish the bitterness we’ve been holding on to, or give us greater patience and understanding with co-workers, or in many other ways.
In the first reading today we hear this unusual line: “in those who know you (meaning God), you rebuke temerity” i.e. timidity or faint-heartedness. God does not want timid followers. Perhaps we are timid in sharing our faith, timid in speaking up for what is right, timid to intervene in a situation of bullying, timid in expressing our true feelings when we think we will be ridiculed, timid in refusing to go along with the crowd. God rebukes such temerity, and encourages us to do more, to be bold in faith.
I think the power of the Holy Spirit to stop us from saying the mean and hurtful word, to “bite our tongue” in moments of intense emotion, is one of the most powerful demonstrations of the strength of the Holy Spirit.
There are many, many ways the Holy Spirit aids us in our weakness.
But St. Paul in today’s second reading focuses on one particular way that the Holy Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness, for St. Paul states: “we do not know how to pray as we ought”.
Now this is curious. Most of Paul’s letters were written to Christian communities he had founded, but Romans was rather a letter of introduction. You see, there was already a Christian community in Rome, and Paul is sending this letter to them before Paul arrives there, laying out Paul’s theology, by way of introduction. So, how did St Paul know that the Romans did not know how to pray as they ought? Were the Romans widely known as lousy prayers? And did the Roman Christians take umbrage at this, were they offended by Paul - who had never met them - telling them they didn’t know how to pray properly?
Well, if the early Roman Christians were anything like today’s Roman Catholics, they probably agreed with Paul. For many of us I think would agree, “we do not know how to pray as we ought”. So, IF you are totally satisfied with the state of your prayer life, please stand up. (pause) OK, that is a bit hokey, but most of us have feelings of inadequacy about our prayer. Many of us think or feel that we should pray more, but we don’t feel very good at praying, and so it seems like a waste of time. If we were better at it, then it would seem more like a good thing to do.
But St. Paul tells us there is help: “but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings”, or as the New Revised Standard Version more felicitously translates it, “with sighs too deep for words.” The Holy Spirit helps us to pray in ways we cannot comprehend or even imagine.
What is important for prayer is not the method or the technique, but rather openness to the Holy Spirit. Prayer can use the body, or the voice, or the imagination, or all together, or simple stillness. There are many ways to pray and you need to find the way that works for you. There is story about an old Polish peasant who spent many hours in church praying. And when he prayed he mumbled softly. One day the pastor grew curious and snuck up to the pew behind where the old man was sitting, to listen to his prayer, what was he saying. And the priest heard the man saying “a, b, c, d...” until he finished the alphabet, and then started again: “a, b, c, d ...” The priest stopped him and said, “what are you doing? That is no prayer, reciting the alphabet!” The man responded, “Well, I am just a simple peasant, I don’t know how to make elaborate speeches with fancy vocabulary, so I just give God the letters, and He makes the words.”
I think that is openness to the Holy Spirit. Let the Holy Spirit guide and lead you in prayer. Openness means lowering the barriers of fear, the barrier of needing to be in charge and in control; but rather letting the Holy Spirit guide me where the Spirit wants me to go. It means trusting that the Holy Spirit will come to the aid of my weakness. St Paul assures us: “And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because he intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.”