Saturday, June 14, 2008

We do not know how to pray...

Henri Nouwen wrote, "Prayer is the gift of the Spirit. Often we wonder how to pray, when to pray, and what to pray. We can become very concerned about methods and techniques of prayer. But finally it is not we who pray but the Spirit who prays in us." (Bread for the Journey)

I know years ago I became very anxious, not so much about "methods and techniques of prayer", as about what to pray for, in what terms to pray for it... There seemed to be so much I needed to know in order to pray "directed prayers" - in any case, even if I knew all the circumstances I was "praying into", how would I know what outcome to pray for? You can imagine something of my dilemma if you imagine praying for a complex political / social / economic situation in a troubled and war-torn country, and trying to get all the analyses of the situation dead right, even down to the cultural milieu and the agronomic background, not to mention the international atmosphere, and all the political and economic circumstances of countries upon whose trade, or assistance, or military support, or arms sales, the nation for whom you are praying depends. Then of course you have to know what outcome to pray for: for the fall of a dictator? foreign aid? foreign military intervention? agricultural education? debt relief? a revolution? democratic elections?

Finally the penny dropped, somewhere along the line, that Paul had had the answer in Romans all along: "...the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, 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." (Romans 8.26f)

God knows, infinitely better than than I, all that is involved in the situation about which I'm concerned. He also knows far better than I what is to be done about it, and he has caused people to be prepared to do it. All that is necessary is for me to care, to love, to become vulnerable to the situation. To stop avoiding those pictures in the paper, and to pay attention to the reports on TV - not because that way I may become better informed, like an intelligence officer, how I should act, but in order that I may love, and grieve, and weep, and come before God with all the pain and loss and confusion raw, unprocessed, honest. God can work with stuff like that.

Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." (Matthew 11.25 NIV)

All the study and analysis in the world will not help us to pray, if we do not care. If knowing the facts truly helps us to care, then well and good; but that is not yet prayer. It is only the love of Christ working in our hearts by the Holy Spirit that allows us to pray, and as Maggie Ross so telling said (I've mentioned it here before):

There are as many ways of intercession as there are moments of life. Intercession can become deep and habitual, hidden even from our selves. There is nothing exotic about such practice. What matters is the intention that creates the space and the stillness. Even something as simple as refusing to anesthetize the gnawing pain in the pit of your soul that is a resonance of the pain of the human condition is a form of habitual intercession. To bear this pain into the silence is to bring it into the open place of God’s infinite mercy. It is in our very wounds that we find the solitude and openness of our re-creation and our being. We learn to go to the heart of pain to find God’s new life, hope, possibility, and joy. This is the priestly task of our baptism.


  1. knowing how to pray...a very common problem...only not the problem we believe it to be!
    A lot of prayer, I believe is also done on an unconscious level.(The HS praying through us in oh so many forms and ways.)
    I find that when dryness comes I often go to DEVOTIONS! Big mistake. St Teresa once said "God deliver us from foolish devotions". ANd if I let myself get carried with so many devotions,it becomes rote and 'foolish'. Just filling in space.Empty works one after another. JMO. However, there IS a proper time and place for my devotions and novenas.
    I am a rosary person. But I find that many many times I allow the meditation of the rosary mysteries to carry me into contemplation. The rosary has brought me to Him (Our Lady's purpose after all, isn't it).
    Yet one of my devotions is the 1st saturday Fatima recitation.
    Balance , wisdom adn openness to the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit is the important to me.

    As for current many times have I felt assured that just the sigh "Jesus help them" has worked oh so much more than many words piled one on top of another.

    There is an old lady whom I visit and she always prays..
    "Lord, I pray for someone you know right now who might need a prayer". A simple lesson taught to me , a great lesson learned from this humble shut-in.
    Just some random thoughts that came to me as I read and thought I'd add a comment.
    Great , thought provoking and inspiring post. Thanks.

  2. I sometimes try to 'eavesdrop' on this unutterable groaning between the Spirit and the Father. In other words, to 'listen' to what the Spirit is saying as my Advocate to the Father and watch for the response. This Divine communication of my life would be Wisdom to me if I'm allowed to hear it. {Needed: true detachment from oneself including one's own will.)