I should like to speak about the two verses from Romans which we had in our second reading today.
This being St. Paul, and especially his letter to the Romans, the language of these verses is dense; apparently paradoxical; rather tangled; not straightforward to interpret, or understand; yet with all that, Paul’s words are for us a priceless gift; fraught with life-giving teaching; at once challenging and liberating; consoling, uplifting, and true.
St. Paul has so far in this letter expounded for us the meaning of Christ’s saving mission. He has shown that we who have faith and are baptised now belong to Christ; we are in him, and he is in us; we have his Spirit, and share his divine Sonship. Already redeemed, but not yet in heaven, we are set on a course directed towards our full share in Christ’s risen and eternal glory. But as we wait for that, our life is beset with troubles, pains, difficulties, afflictions of every sort; both exterior and interior. So now St. Paul assures us that this is all as it should be; it doesn’t detract from our hope, but confirms it; we are supposed to be dissatisfied with this present life, and longing for what is to follow.
Our text today begins: The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness. In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul recounts a very personal experience of weakness he had, when he was given his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:9-10). Three times he asked for it to be taken away, and his prayer was not granted. Then he understood, at first hand, how God’s power is made perfect in weakness. There Paul was referring especially to the weakness of the flesh, of our fallen and fragile human condition; also of our vulnerability in face of persecution. But here in Romans, the weakness he speaks of is specifically our weakness in prayer.
For we do not know how to pray as we ought. Well, of course we do know how to pray. We have the words of the Lord’s prayer, and the Psalms, and the Holy Eucharist. We have St. Paul’s own example of ceaseless prayer for those whom he was anxious over; those whom he loved. We have also St. Paul’s ceaseless thanksgiving, and his ceaseless rejoicing in the Lord. We know we have to pray for the sick, for peace, for the conversion of sinners, for our own growth in faith, hope and love, for God’s blessing on people or on projects, for all who hold authority, for good weather and a successful harvest. But on the other hand: we don’t know what is truly expedient for us, whether prosperity or adversity; only God knows that. And we don’t know exactly what we are straining towards in heaven. It’s the peace that passes all understanding (Phil 4:7). It’s what no eye has seen, nor ear heard - things beyond the mind of man - what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9).
So, the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans beyond utterance. Twice already, in the few verses immediately preceding, Paul has spoken about inarticulate groans. Creation itself groans as it awaits its deliverance, as if giving birth to a child. We too groan as we eagerly await the final redemption of our bodies. This groaning of creation and of ourselves is not so much a cry of pain, as of expectation. It both fuels and expresses our hope for what is to come. Now Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit groans. Of course in himself the Holy Spirit is God; he can lack nothing. So the Fathers and theologians explain: the Spirit groans in that he makes us groan. He puts in us the prayer of Jesus turned towards, yearning for his Father. He inspires us with holy desires; he makes us long for God, for all that is holy and good; for heaven. The Holy Spirit ensures that our prayer is made in accordance with God’s will, and that it is divinely powerful and effective.
Paradoxically, then, our weakness before God, our felt inability to pray is not a disadvantage, but an advantage. Sometimes, it’s true, our prayer flows fluently and easily; we find the right words; we are filled with light and insight; sometimes even we are lifted up as if to heaven, and enjoy the companionship of the Angels. Certainly the Holy Spirit is present in this. But then also, sometimes: we have no idea at all what to say, or how to think. We use words, but they don’t seem to mean much, or anything, to us. All we are aware of is our incapacity, our dullness, and our yearning for a God who seems inaccessibly far away. And precisely here, St. Paul suggests, the Holy Spirit may be even more powerfully present. For here at last we have got out of the way. We have become passive, and so He is free to work. What we experience here is not light but darkness. It’s what the mystics call the Cloud of Unknowing, or the Dark Night of the Soul. But, as St. Paul says, God knows what the Spirit means.
And this is a most consoling reflection. We need not necessarily have conscious access to what is going on in our own prayer. Deep below the mere flow of our thought, underneath the surface of our minds, so inadequate, so distracted, so inconstant, a divine activity is at work. Even when we repeat words we well understand, like Kyrie eleison, or Pater noster, our prayer is not confined to the meaning of those words, but it flows from our identification with Christ crucified and risen; and from the Holy Spirit living and active within us. Such a prayer can often feel as if it’s nothing at all, because we are not in control of it. Yet experience shows that, amid a sense of inability to pray, we simply find ourselves, through this prayer, more effectively converted, more certain of God’s presence and love, more firmly established in humility, more courageously ready for martyrdom. This inexpressible prayer is both the work of the Holy Spirit, and also most authentically ours, for it touches our depths, beyond our normal reach. A prayer essentially of silence, it’s better expressed through music than through words. In the liturgy it’s wonderfully evoked through Gregorian Chant, and through the repetitive tones of the sung Psalmody.
Let me leave you now with two little expressions taken from those who have known this sort of prayer. First the poet Dante, in the 13th century. If at that moment, he says, someone had asked me a question about anything, my only reply would have been “love”, with a countenance clothed with humility (La Vita Nuova XI).
Then in the early second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch. I feel, he writes to the Christians of Rome, a spring of living water within me, murmuring: Come to the Father! (To the Romans, 7:2).