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The Spirit Teaches How to Pray

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A Cycle)

The Spirit Teaches How to Pray

The second reading for today is only two verses long, and to a certain extent the understanding of these two verses is dependent upon the verses we heard from the Letter to the Romans last week. You might remember that last week, St. Paul told us that he was certain that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. According to him, three things convince us of this fact. He mentioned two of them last week: the testimony of creation and the conviction of all believers. All creation awaits with eager anticipation and we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

This week, St. Paul introduces the third element which confirms the notion that our present situation is as nothing compared to our future; namely, the Spirit which comes to the aid of our weakness. St. Paul provides us with a bold and moving explanation of prayer to God through the Spirit. In it he describes human limitation and how the Spirit intercedes for us.

St. Paul first acknowledges our human weakness. He is not merely referring to our physical frailty. Each of us is readily aware of that kind of weakness especially as we grow older and weaker. However, St. Paul is speaking of the totality of the human condition. We might not want to admit this about ourselves, but St. Paul is asking us to admit that we are weak, limited, prone to ignorance and to making mistakes. He goes on to maintain that we do not know how to pray as we ought. This can mean that either we do not know how to engage in the practice of prayer or that we do not know for what we should pray. Still, such weakness need not prevent us from accomplishing great things because St. Paul reminds us that weak human beings who are committed to Jesus are holy ones, saints. Such a reference itself reveals something about his understanding of holiness, specifically that human weakness is not an obstacle to holiness.

So having acknowledged human weakness, St. Paul suggests that the Spirit does more than merely offer aid. The Greek verb he uses here implies that the Spirit identifies with this weakness, takes it on, and in that capacity comes to our assistance. This is an important point to appreciate, for it means that it is the Spirit’s identification with us that makes it possible for us to pray. According to St. Paul the Spirit acts as intermediary between God and humankind. As Spirit of God there is a divine connection; in solidarity with human weakness there is a human connection. The Spirit of God knows the will of God, and so the Spirit intercedes for us. Identified with our weakness, the Spirit is also identified with our inability to pray, groaning with sighs too deep for words.

This passage gives us a glimpse into St. Paul’s thinking. Believers pray to God and seek to do God’s will, but human limitation clouds our eyes and obstructs our inner eyes. The Spirit of God takes hold of us and empowers us to pray and to do God’s will. The Spirit living within us enables us to act in accord with God’s will for us.

Now this may sound like we do not really have a role in our relationship with the Spirit. This is not the case at all. All of us are conditioned by society and our culture to think of ourselves as the masters of our own fate, the captain of the ship of our lives. St. Paul knows this about human beings. He was himself convinced of his personal strength. God had to literally knock him down to make him realize his weakness. God blinded him so that he needed to be guided by others. However, once he accepted his weakness, he was able to open himself to the power of the Spirit which God imparted to him. So too with us. When we accept our weakness and allow the Spirit to enter into our lives then we can be enlightened by the Spirit. Then we can understand what God wants of us, and we will learn how to pray as we allow the Spirit to pray with us. We will learn to set aside our human weakness and accept the divine strength that is offered to each of us through our Baptism.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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