This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 12 May 2011.
In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. — Romans 8:26
I believe in the Holy Spirit. This is not an assertion I make by rote on Sundays. Neither is my belief a theological abstraction. Like St. Paul, I have seen the Spirit, who prays in us when we do not know how, at work, up close and in my household.
When Chris was four years old, his preschool class made construction paper rainbows with pots of gold at the end. On the cloud atop each child’s rainbow, the teacher had written their answer to the question, “What would you do if you found a pot of gold?” What do preschoolers long for? Some children dreamed of candy, others of new toys, or perhaps a new video. All but one desired something for themselves.
Then there was my son, who had replied, “Feed all the hungry children in the world.” I tell you, I believe in the Holy Spirit.
What made Chris say such a thing? I’m certain that he, like his peers, longed for an unlimited supply of gummi bears. He may still. Yet in that moment he gave voice not to his own desires, but to others’ needs. In his tiny but powerful book on the Psalms, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that if we are to pray well, we ought to pray at times contrary to our own desires. “Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray.”
How do we discover what God wants us to pray? In a fourth century homily on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. John Chrysostom tells of early Christian communities where one person would take this role and would “stand with great attention … asking the things which were profitable for all.”
I, at least, often find it hard to have the attention necessary to see beyond the needs in my immediate vicinity. My own needs, those of my family and my community. My human vision — and imagination — are by their nature limited. Speaking from the fourth century, Church father Origen has words of solace and hope for me: “Whenever the Holy Spirit sees us struggling, he stretches out his hand to help us in our weakness. It is a reminder to let God work in my prayer.”
For even our prayer is not our possession. As we hear in the words of a weekday Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, “our desire to thank you is itself your gift.” Prayer is active — not just on our part, but on God’s. Prayer seeks to raise us out of ourselves, orienting us not only to God, but to our neighbor.
We stand, we stop, we listen, the Holy Spirit pours forth, and then, perhaps then we may give voice to what God wants us to pray. I still have Chris’ rainbow, tucked safely away in a drawer with other precious relics, just in case my faith falters. For I believe in the Holy Spirit.
Light immortal, Light divine,
Visit thou these hearts of thine,
And our inmost being fill.
If thou take thy grace away,
Nothing pure in us will stay;
All our good is turned to ill.
— From Veni Spiritus Sanctus