“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought,” Paul writes to the Romans, “but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
My mother prays a lot. Every night, in fact, she has a whole conversation with God about the family, my father, sister and I, and all the people who are connected to our lives. Her prayers for us can be very specific, if there’s a job interview on the horizon or some other major transition, we can be sure that our mother is talking to God about it. For a few years, the romantic lives of my sister and I were on the front burner of my mother’s prayer agenda. “But only if its what you want!” she’d be quick to add. These prayers could get pretty specific, too. Indeed, one night at dinner I was surprised to learn that she was still praying for an ex-boyfriend of mine a whole year after we had broken up. (“You can lay that one to rest,” I told her.) It has become a tradition in our family on Christmas Eve for my mother to read from her annual account of our family’s life. Each year at Christmastime she writes about the past year, the major events of all of our lives, and her major hopes for us for the future. She reads these entries to us a year later, and its always interesting to hear about what she was praying for the year before. It is always amazing for me to see the way my mother’s prayer life anticipates the people my sister and I are becoming. Yet, beyond the details of our lives in any given year, all my mother really wants is for us to be happy, and it is even more amazing to know that my mother speaks to God about our happiness on our behalf. My own happiness is not something that I ever really think to speak to God about, so its good to know my mother has my back on this one.
I have sometimes thought that if I could speak to God with the sincerity and clarity of my mother I, too, would be a man of great prayer. As it is, I know how to pray the prayers which our broader family, the church, has taught me. I know how to tumble through the cycles of prayer for our family members in the church throughout the world, how to pray for leaders, for the future of cities and towns, just stewardship of resources for the poor. I know how to pray for those in need, those at war, the tribes and peoples of the world, most of whom we’ve never met, and never will. I know how to pray thanksgiving for salvation in the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus from the grave. I know how to pray these prayers that we have written down in this great book of ours, prayers refined by generations in the faith, prayers as old as Jesus at table with his friends, prayers as old as David at his lyre with his songs. But I also know that at the end of most of our petitions we add something like the prayer we hear from St. John Chrysostom: “Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us.” Or something like this collect: “Help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those good things which we dare not, or, in our blindness, cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your son.” In other words: “This is what we’re asking for, God, this is what we’re thankful for, but only you know what is good. Only you know what we need.” Thy will be done, not ours. The flexibility of God’s will is a matter of debate in Holy Scripture, but either way, the will of God to which we pledge our own day after day in the prayer that Jesus taught us remains, essentially, a mystery.
So when Paul says that in our weakness, “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” I believe him. I believe him to the point that I wonder at times why I pray at all. Nothing drove this weakness, this futility of words, home for me more than my time as a hospital chaplain in the Mission District of San Francisco last Summer. Time and again I found myself entering rooms of the dying, family members circled around faced either with the tragedy of shock or inevitability, and, as a stranger, I had to come to offer some kind of petition to their God on their behalf. What words was I to pray then? You can be sure that I was glad to retreat as often as I could behind the familiar, tried and true words of our prayer book, and often these words would suffice where mine were lacking. The poetry of our Burial Office or of our Ministration at the Time of Death transcended many moments of grief that I was present to, where I would have been speechless otherwise. But there were just as many times when it was clear that the prayer book was not the language needed. I remember walking into a room with another chaplain intern to find a mother and her sisters and her dead son, to whom she had never been reconciled before his death because of her distaste for his sexuality. It was clear that the prayer book tucked beneath my arm would have been far too cool a choice to mark the many layers of grieving which were present; and as I stood stunned, unsure of what to do, my colleague stepped forward and offered words of comfort, and then began to sing. Her voice soared and filled the hospital room with the sounds of a great wound, of bleeding grief, and at the sound of her song we wept, though few of us likely knew the reason why. It was a groan of labor, a sigh too deep for words.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought,” Paul writes to the Romans. Paul’s struggles with how to pray and speak the right words are bound up in his struggle to explain the majesty he has perceived in God’s work through Christ, a struggle to articulate a hope in something which is as yet unseen: the redemption of bodies which are still prone to decay even when their very souls have been redeemed by the grace of unending life. He has a vision in his mind and heart of what God wants, and a body that resists its implementation; a vision of grandiosity, and a body prone to weakness and limitations. There is one very easy way to read Paul’s struggles in this letter as a battle between divine spirit and sinful flesh. Paul lays out this explanation himself in so many words. But a closer look reveals something less like a war, and more like a mid-wife. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, he says. Despite our shortcomings, in the very midst of our futility, God comes as close to us as the very goodness in our lives. So much so that there is no good thing present to us which God is not a part of. Even with our frail, failing human voices, Paul says that when we call to God as “Abba, Father” in the midst of our doubt and disbelief, when we simply call to the great “You” at the receiving end of all our prayers, we cannot even utter the words themselves without the power of the Holy Spirit rising up beneath them to give them breath and voice. This Holy Spirit of the Jesus who has saved us is as deeply a part of us as the yearning we feel to speak to God, the groaning which longs for nothing more than to commune with the One who made us and saved us and loves us more than any thing on Earth can love. This deepest part of us, this speechless desire for God, Paul calls nothing less than the Holy Spirit moving through us, lifting up our needs on our behalf which we do not even know how to name. “That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, and God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” This belief, that God is this close to us, so much a part of who we are, is what leads to Paul’s conviction that, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” No doubt that we may fail to find the words we need can keep us from who we are, which is a body utterly infused with the Spirit of the Living God.
So in spite of our best efforts to pray the right way, in spite of our worthiest traditions of recording all the words which we have known the Holy Spirit to pray through us in the past, we may find from time to time that we do not know which words to say. But we can know enough about who we are as God’s people that when we arrive at the end of all our best intentions, we may find a quiet place in the middle of our day, and let the Holy Spirit pray through us. We may begin with words as simple as “I’m sorry God, please help us,” or just, “Thank you”, and wait to see what the Spirit raises up from there. We may find ourselves surprised at the simple joys we had not noticed, or the grief which we had no words to speak. We may find that we have forgotten something as simple as praying for our own happiness and well-being. Its OK to be surprised by what we have forgotten in our prayer. God has our back on this one.