Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 17, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans contains both the severest description of our human condition as creatures and sinners and the most beautiful description of the glories and joys obtained for us by Jesus Christ and given to us in his Holy Spirit. The sober assessment is given in chapters 1 to 4, and the glorious liberation in chapters 5 to 8. It is the climactic eigth chapter that we have been following for the last couple of weeks.
Last week we heard Paul describe how creation itself, this physical universe, is groaning, as if in childbirth, for its fulfilment when it, too, will share in “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” But not only that, he went on, “but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” The grace of God we have already received is just a foretaste of what is still to come when we, body as well as soul, are liberated into the life of God. Groaning is the word for this in-between time, this time between grace and glory, a groaning over the incomplete character of our redemption, over the ills we continue to suffer and also to do, a groaning of desire for what is still to come.
And today we hear that there are other groanings, too. “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness,” the Apostle writes us, a weakness that affects even our prayer: “for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” The scholars disagree on whether this means we don’t know how to pray or we don’t know what to pray, but perhaps there is not much difference in the meaning. Surely St. Paul did not mean that we don’t have prayers we could say. He must have known of the Lord’s Prayer, and he probably knew the Psalms, that great collection of prayers, by heart. So he’s not talking about prayer-formulas here, but about something far deeper.
On the one hand, when we experience painful difficulties, it is only natural to pray that they be taken away, as even Our Lord did in the garden at the prospect of the sufferings that lay before him. But it is also true that we don’t really know what would be good, or better, for us. It might be better for us to have to endure the sufferings than to have them taken away. We might learn from them things that we would otherwise never learn: Christ himself is said to have learned from what he suffered (Hb 5:8). His own prayer of distress ended with a surrender to his Father: “Yet not my will but yours be done.”
In addition, we do not know what we should pray for positively. St. Paul described the peace we can experience even now as “a peace that surpasses all understanding” (Ph 4:7). In another place he appeals to the prophet’s words: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man what God has prepared for those who love him.” There is mystery involved here, as should only be expected when we are talking about God. As St. Augustine said, we know more what that fulfilment is not than what it is; we do not know what that is that alone will end our searching and satisfy our desires. It is, he said, a “learned ignorance,” and its voice is a groan:
The Spirit causes the saints to intercede with inexpressible groans, inspiring in them a desire for that great thing, even if still unknown, that we await in patience. For how can what is desired be expressed in language when it is unknown? If it were utterly unknown, it would not be desired, but on the other hand, if it were seen, it would not be desired nor sought with groans.
Elsewhere Augustine said that there are joys that can’t be confined within syllables, and this is true also of our deepest desires.
That the prayer the Spirit helps us to pray is called a groaning implies that it comes from inner depths, expressing desires that are deeper even than thought or words. Deeper, that is, than our words or thoughts, because our God is “the one who searches hearts,” and he knows how to interpret our Spirit-inspired longings. When these desires do become words of prayer, these should always reflect our condition between grace and glory. That is, our prayer should always be honest, honest about our weakness and our sins, honest about evils experienced and committed, honest about our fears and dread. Even if we wanted to, there would be no point in pretending in our prayer, because if they do not agree, God will hear our hearts and disregard our words. And where we are honest enough to admit that we do not know what to pray for or how to pray, that very honesty is itself desire, a sigh of longing for what God has in store for us, because we know that it can only be for our good, and for goods far beyond anything we could put into words.