"We do not know how we are to pray, but the Spirit himself pleads for us with inexpressible longings." - Romans 8:26
Many of the readings in the Office of Readings for the Lenten season offer beautiful reflections on prayer. This Lent, I have returned several times to one reading in particular: a homily by St. John Chrysostom, in the office for the Friday after Ash Wednesday. "As the eyes of the body are enlightened when they see light, so our spirit, when it is intent on God, is illumined by his infinite light," St. John says. Prayer, he explains, is "the light of the spirit, true knowledge of God, mediating between God and man."
Beautiful thoughts, to be sure - but St. John is quick to clarify what he means by "prayer," and the challenge he presents is directed not towards people who don't ever pray, but rather towards those of us who pray often, who like to think that we know how to pray. He says:
"I do not mean the prayer of outward observance, but prayer from the heart, not confined to fixed times or periods but continuous throughout the day and night... I speak of prayer, not words. It is the longing for God, love too deep for words, a gift not given by man but by God's grace."Prayer, St. John reminds us, is not a practice; it is a way of life. Prayer is not merely part of our daily schedule; it should be part of all that we do. Prayer is not - as we like to think it is - an act within our power; it is made possibly for us only by God's grace. Prayer is not our gift to God; it is His gift to us. How many of us can say that our prayer springs from a "love too deep for words," or that we do not feel the need to use words when we pray?
St. John goes on to quote St. Paul, who says in Romans 8:26: "We do not know how we are to pray, but the Spirit himself pleads for us with inexpressible longings." If we want to be honest with ourselves and with God, we must admit as St. Paul does that we do not know how to pray. We cannot venture such a claim. Too often we forget that even the desire to pray is not our doing. Even the desire to pray is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
We would do well to keep this truth in mind as we enter into our Lenten observances more deeply and prepare to celebrate the Easter Triduum.
St. John Chrysostom, pray for us.