Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Groaning Spirit

How do you pray? Do you talk at God whenever the moment feels right? When someone tells me that she talks with God casually throughout the day, I imagine those prayers being uttered in moments of minor need like stuck in traffic or running late or looking for a parking spot. Maybe you sit in the same place every morning and read some prescribed prayers: the Lord's Prayer, the Collect of the Day, the Collects for Peace and Grace, the General Thanksgiving. Or perhaps you set aside time each day to pray to God and naming before God the things for which you are grateful and the concerns of your heart. Maybe you keep a prayer journal of names and circumstances that you care about, reviewing them and saying them aloud every morning. But what happens when we want more? What do we do when we want to bring before God those needs of which we are not conscious? What about those deepest needs of the world and even of ourselves that we don't have words to express but are desperate to name before God? How do we pray when we don't have the words to do it?

Some people sit in silence for thirty minutes each day, bringing themselves consciously into God's presence and listening for the Spirit's quiet voice. In the practice of silent prayer, there is communion with God. The heart and spirit of the person praying are able to communicate with God, expressing in silence deep longing and receiving in return the Spirit's gentle, silent whisper. But, for some, silence does not work. In her book Praying in Color, Sybil MacBeth invites those of us who are distracted by silence to use holy doodling to hold specific needs or people before God in prayer. Still, what if you don't even know for whom to pray but want to do more than sit still? Some pray in tongues, uttering phrases and noises unintelligible to anyone but God. Those who do so believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through them, using their prayers as a channel through which God acts in their lives and in the world in ways beyond their conscious understanding. Those who pray in tongues sense a completeness in their prayers that "normal," understandable prayers can't quite provide. But praying in tongues isn't for everyone. Not everyone has received that gift. And some find it beyond strange, questioning its legitimacy.

There's another possibility--a mixture of these types of prayer that Paul might have in mind in Sunday's reading from Romans 8: "Likewise 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." On the surface, this seems different from the Spirit-led speech that the disciples offer in Acts 2, when they speak in the tongues (meaning languages) of people from all over the world. This is the Spirit "groaning" in ways that those who are praying cannot know. Paul acknowledges that prayer is an important practice that sometimes exceeds our capabilities. "In our weakness," the Spirit helps us by sighing or groaning in intercession in ways "too deep for words." And these groans are known by God (interestingly not heard) because, as Paul reminds us, the Spirit intercedes for holy ones (saints) of God.

What does this mean for us in the 21st century? Are there some among us through whom the Spirit sighs or groans in wordless intercession? Sarah Coakley emphasis such wordless, contemplative prayer as the only means by which individuals are able to communicate with God as they are thus incorporated into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. She's not the first to emphasize this, of course, and Christian ascetics have been engaging in this contemplative practice and prayer since at least the second century. Coakley also allows that contemplative, silent prayer's charismatic sibling, praying in tongues, while less fully developed in the Christian tradition, is an expression of the same thing. But it's important to note that neither Paul nor Sarah Coakley think that mere silence or the practice of centering prayer is sufficient. This is the Spirit doing distinctive work in and through the pray-er.

For us, we see that Paul and the early church to which he was writing understood that Spirit-led, Spirit-spoken prayer was central to our identity as Christians. The act of interceding in ways of which we are unable to be conscious is part of our Spirit-enabled practice. How do you pray? Even that question does not get to the whole issue. How are you a vessel for prayer? How does the Spirit pray in you and through you? How are you becoming a vehicle through which God acts in the world by pursuing Spirit-spoken prayer?

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