Posted July 17, 2020
16th Sunday of the Year (Yr A)
The Spirit intercedes for us with groans, St Paul tells us in the second Reading (Romans 8: 26-27). What kind of groans are these?, I hear you ask. St Paul does try to tell us, but unfortunately the Greek adjective that he uses to describe them is ambiguous. On the one hand, it could mean that the groans are silent. If so, then St Paul is saying that the Spirit intercedes for us in silence, a thought that will no doubt win the approval of the Quakers among you. On the other hand, he could be saying that the groans are indeed audible, but that no human language can translate them. If so, perhaps he is alluding to the Christian practice of speaking in tongues, which he elsewhere calls ‘speaking with the tongues of angels’. That, no doubt, will gladden the hearts of the Pentecostals among you. But it is in fact not clear whether St Paul is saying that the Spirit’s groans are unspoken or whether he is saying that they are like no human language. This ambiguity leaves room for plenty of unspoken or unspeakable debate between Quakers and Pentecostals and their more or less distant cousins, but does not help the rest of us very much.
Perhaps we should interpret St Paul’s mysterious words in the light of other passages from his epistles. There is first that famous passage in Second Corinthians where St Paul says: ‘I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven.’ Most interpreters think that this is St Paul’s typically uncomplicated way of referring to himself. He is referring to a remarkable mystical vision that he had experienced. Describing this experience, he says that he was caught up into paradise and heard words spoken that cannot and may not be spoken by any human being. ‘Cannot and may not be spoken’ because of the awesome sacredness of God’s presence. ‘Cannot and may not be spoken’ for the same reason that no Jew would utter the sacred name of God.
According to today’s reading, the Spirit, who is in our hearts, intercedes for us. Could it be that while he intercedes for us, he is engaged in a dialogue with God the Father so awesome, so sacred, so intimate and divine, that no human being would dare to try to articulate it in words, even if they could? We are taken up into the intimate dialogue that exists eternally in the inner life of the Blessed Trinity. Isn’t that what St Paul means when he tells the Galatians that ‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba”, Father’?
Are we to say, then, that when we pray it is not we who pray, but rather that we are drawn into an eternal dialogue that is not our own? Yes, but surely this is not the whole story, for it is also we who pray. We pray in God’s Spirit, as St Paul has reminded us just a few verses earlier: ‘We have received the Spirit of sonship in whom we cry “Abba, Father!”‘ On the one hand, then, it is the Holy Spirit who cries ‘Abba’ in our hearts; and at the same time it is we who cry ‘Abba’ in the Holy Spirit. So when we pray, we not only pray to God, but God prays in us and we pray with God. The mind boggles. We would never dare to think that God involves us his creatures in his own sacred prayer, if it were not that St Paul had told us it was true.
There are some wonderful lessons to be learnt from all this. First of all, notice that this part of the Epistle to the Romans is about hope and assurance in the midst of weakness and tribulation. The Holy Spirit comes to our help in our weakness. St Paul is evidently not talking about the prayer of an elite group of mystics or a gathering of gifted charismatics, but about all of us, in our weakness. That means that when our prayer seems to be arid and pointless, when the ‘feel-good’ factor is a million miles away, precisely in those moments our prayer is very far from pointless, because the Holy Spirit is interceding for us in the presence of God – and not just interceding for us, but merging our prayer with his own intercession and drawing us into God’s own activity. So our arid prayer is always infinitely enriching. Prayer is never a waste of time. One often hears people saying, ‘I can’t pray – I seem to be getting nowhere!’ Perhaps you’re trying too hard. Prayer is not about trying, except in the sense of trying not to get in God’s way.
A second lesson we might draw from all this, is that our prayer is always answered. That is because it is God who is doing the asking, and God cannot refuse what God asks for. St Paul does not say that there is some special technique that we must master, or some method that we have to follow, when we pray. He says that in our very ignorance of how we should pray and what we should pray for, God knows what the Holy Spirit is praying for and approves of his prayer, knowing that it is for our own deepest benefit and wholly in accord with his own wishes. He knows the Holy Spirit has got it right. You might almost say that when we pray, God does not distinguish between us and the Holy Spirit: for the instinct of the Holy Spirit has become ours. ‘He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints (that is, for us) in accordance with God’s will.’
Which brings us to the question: Why is that pay rise so slow in coming? You’ve prayed and prayed for it, but it never comes. A traditional answer is: ‘God knows that it would be bad for you.’ Well, I am not sure about that. Doubtless your employer takes the view that it would be bad for you, but I’m not sure about God. In any case, this answer would not work in cases where your prayer is for something that is indisputably good and unselfish, for example, when you pray that you may have the strength to overcome a particular temptation, or that a sick person may get well, or that your son will stop being a lay-about, and other such obviously praiseworthy petitions. Why does God not answer our prayers when we pray for such things? Why does God so often sound like that dreaded voice from customer services that keeps telling you ‘Thank you for calling. We value your call. Please bear with us’?
Perhaps the answer is that God does indeed answer our prayers, but in his own way and in his own time. For God’s ways are not our ways, and as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are God’s thoughts above ours. We see things only in fragmentary fashion. We do not see the coherent whole. It is rather like looking at a piece of expert embroidery from the reverse of the fabric. There are threads that stop short when you think they ought to continue, and threads that continue when they would look much neater if they stopped short. It is only when you turn the fabric over and view the expert handiwork from the artist’s point of view that you see the coherence of the whole.
But perhaps the truest answer is that God knows that the best way he can answer my prayers is to answer his own prayer for me, and his own prayer for me is that I become a saint. So that should be my prayer too. It seems a selfish prayer at first sight, until you reflect that to become a saint is to become generous beyond measure and to embrace good in its entirety – to embrace God’s will as the truest and loveliest thing that ever can be, and the source of unimaginable blessings for the world, including that sick person and that layabout son. Let us pray for good without limit, and patiently leave it to God to bring it about in his creation.
Fr Tom Deidun