The Spirit comes to help us – Lenten Reflection – Week 2
People sometimes say “I find it difficult to pray”. That can mean different things for different people. For some people it means: “I can’t find time to pray”. For others it means: “My mind keeps wandering” or perhaps “I don’t know what to say”. If you find yourself saying some or all of these things, then welcome to the human race. The formal prayers we all know are given to us for those occasions when we don’t have words of our own, or when we want to pray together with others, using words that are familiar to us all. They help us, as St John Damascene said, to lift our hearts and minds to God.
When I am out walking with a friend, we might talk about something we have seen along the way, or something that has happened during the last few days, or where we might stop for coffee. A lot of the time we don’t talk at all. We might not even be walking side by side, but we are together. Jesus told his disciples: “when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases, as the pagans do”. As our relationship with God matures, the words become less important, and it is sometimes enough to simply be in his presence. There is no need to fill the space with words. We may find the silence difficult, but God is quite comfortable with silence; and he has all the time in the world.
As a priest, I have often sat at a wedding reception, at the end of the table beside the Father of the Bride or the Mother of the Groom. The wedding day is stressful enough for them, God knows, without having to make small talk with a stranger. Sometimes they start talking about priests and nuns they know, because they think that would interest me more than anything else. I think, sometimes that’s exactly how we talk to God. We feel we can only talk to him about “holy things”. But He is the one who made all things holy. One of the best conversations I ever had at a wedding was with a man who was a bee keeper. He was really enthusiastic about bees and honey and I found the conversation really interesting. In much the same way, I suspect that God doesn’t need us to go all formal. More than likely he would want us to talk to him about the things that are going on in our lives; to ask for what we need; to say thanks for what we have and, sometimes, to tell him we “messed up” and we need his help. That’s more or less what the second part of the Our Father is about.
St Paul tells us that: “when we can’t find words to pray, the Spirit prays in us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). It can be helpful, before we begin to pray, to call on the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to God’s presence with us. Sometimes when I come into the Church, or the little prayer room in my house, I start trying to pray without even stopping to remember who is there. That doesn’t work so well. So if you ask me, “how should I pray”, perhaps the best thing is to start by saying “hello”. Enter into God’s presence very simply, and that can happen anywhere. St Teresa of Avila wrote that “God is to be found among the pots and pans”
As in most relationships, of course, it is good sometimes to stop talking and to listen. God has many things he wants to say to you. Much of what he says is found in his Word, in the Bible, and especially in the words of Jesus. It is good sometimes just to take a small piece of Scripture; maybe the Gospel of the day, or one of your own favourite passages and to sit with it. Maybe just ponder a phrase, a single word or an image. Just like sucking a boiled sweet, you keep at it gently until there is nothing left except the taste. Let him speak to your heart in the stillness.
1st March 2023