Many of us have lots of time on our hands these days, and nowhere to go; this is a stay at home summer for so many of us (even those blessed with a job and a roof over our heads, and good health). I am sure we are all still seeking ways to spend that time well.
Perhaps the thought even arises that we should pray more and pray better in a time like this. There are so many people to pray for; and we need prayer to deepen, purify, save our own lives too.
Fortunately then, this Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 19) provides us a chance to reflect on how we pray — and, surprisingly, to begin to see how natural, fundamental, and simple prayer really can be: the Spirit prays within us, our prayer is God’s prayer.
How so? Last week Romans 8 showed the intimate relationship of humans and nature, all yearning and groaning for the liberation God offers. The continuation of Romans 8, just two verses this week, speaks to the deeper reality of prayer:
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. (Romans 8.26-27)
The Spirit is praying within us, whether we are able to pray well or not. This is God breathing in and breathing out, in and as our very life. The Spirit is interceding for us, lifting us up to God, by a sighing and breathing deeper than any of the thoughts and words we put together. This kind of prayer, the Spirit’s praying, is as natural and necessary as breathing is to life. It reaches God immediately, not because we are perfect prayer-makers, but because this is the Spirit of God at work: God knows God’s own Spirit, and so God knows us in the Spirit-praying-within-us, and in that way we brought into the great flow of God’s will for the world. So just breathe in, breathe out: prayer is that easy. Relax; breathe; pray.
Really? In real life, we also know that praying certainly seems to be hard work: finding time for it; doing it regularly; praying not as we did in childhood, but now as adults; finding words that work, but also learning when to shut up in God’s presence; even when we pray earnestly, we are easily distracted; we pray year after year, but praying seems not to get easier; we ask and we do not receive. So how can it be so simple as to say that the Spirit prays within us, even when we cannot, and beyond our thoughts and words?
By the chance of this week’s set of readings, the three further parables of Jesus in Matthew 13 on the kingdom of God shed light on Paul’s assurance that prayer is the hidden work of God within us. (For this to work, let us imagine, as we can, that Jesus’ instruction on the mystery of God’s kingdom is another way of talking about prayer. After all, as he says later on, “The kingdom of God is within you.” [Luke 17.21]) These are the parable of the weeds and the wheat; the mustard seed; and the yeast in the loaf.
My prayer is so distracted, cluttered with weeds:
Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matthew 13.24-30)
Our prayer is often a mess, even our best insights, feelings, desires mixed in with lots of distractions, worthy or unworthy. We may be tempted to seek pure and perfect prayer, and to give up on our ordinary, distracted prayer. But Jesus suggests patience with the imperfect, since therein God dwells. The Spirit is not slowed up by our distractions, the wheat will thrive among the weeds, and in the end, there will be the harvest of God’s kingdom to which prayer leads. How our prayer grows within us, changing us, is itself a mystery: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” (Mark 4.26-27)
Praying is too small part of my life:
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (13.31-32)
Even if we do pray well once in a way, it may seem a bit trivial — too little, too late — compared with the size of the problems facing us and the world around us. But as the parable tells us, even the smallest, tiniest bit of prayer is enough to become a great protection for ourselves and others in need. Or think of what Jesus says elsewhere: “For truly I tell you, if you only had faith the size of amustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17.20) Even one moment of real prayer in the Spirit might be enough for a life time.
I pray, but nothing is happening:
He told them a third parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in withthree measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (13.33)
And finally, perhaps most frustrating, we pray and pray and nothing seems to be happening at all. Like St. Teresa of Avila, we keep an eye on our hourglass, our watch, our phone, to see when we can stop. In prayer, time can be interminable, since we are not used to letting time flow quietly, moment by moment. But in fact, like the yeast that secretly does its work, is the unseen inner movement of the Spirit that invisibly changes our flesh and blood, minds and hearts, in the place where God lives, the living Bread.
And so: prayer happens and draws us to God, even when we are distracted (forget the weeds); it happens when our prayer seems of no account (weigh that tiny mustard seed); and it happens when our efforts seem useless (you can’t see the yeast even as it does its work). All this is the work of the Spirit within us, a Spirit that cannot really be frustrated no matter how hard we try to make prayer something we do or fail to do, on our own:
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.
Admit that is hard to pray, then succeed brilliantly by letting the Spirit pray within us, like breathing out and breathing in.
All this is why many spiritual masters, East and West, urge us to follow our breath as a way into quiet, leading us into prayer. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, just honoring the very rhythm of life. If we see all this as a gift, our own meager, the-best-we-can-do prayers will lift us up into God’s very presence.
And does this do any good for our troubled world in the summer of 2020? If we are not just praying about the world or for the world, but learning to let the Spirit of God pray within us, prayer can make a very large difference. Prayer of the Spirit within us is a portal between God and this world. With our every prayer, there is more of God in the world than there was before; and there is more of us in God. This isn’t everything, it does not feed the hungry or end Covid 19 or achieve racial justice — but it makes God more present in our lives, and that presence is the foundation of the justice and hope we struggle for.
For further reading: St. Paul elsewhere says, “Pray always” (I Thessalonians 5.17). This prompted the writing of one of the most famous books in Russian spirituality, The Way of a Pilgrim. In this classic text, a poor man begins to wander around nineteenth century Russia, puzzling over Paul’s words and asking everyone he meets, “How is it possible to pray always?” He discovers the Jesus prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me” — and repeats it so often that it becomes as essential a part of his life, day and night, like breathing, like the beating of his heart. You can find out more about it here, and find an older translation of the whole book here.