In the same way the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness. We do not even know how we ought to pray, but through our inarticulate groans the Spirit himself is pleading for us, and God who searches our inmost being knows what the Spirit means, because he pleads for God’s people in God’s own way. (Romans 8:26-27)
Out of the many stories about the late Archbishop Ramsey I like this one. Someone asked him how long he spent in prayer each morning. “About one minute,” he replied. And then noting the shock from the Archbishop confessing that he only spent so short a time in prayer, he added, “but it takes me twenty-nine minutes to get there.”
1. God’s presence
What lies behind this is an understanding of prayer very different from that which many of us entertain. Prayer is not primarily — I said primarily — asking God for things or even for things for other people, it is being in God’s presence, indeed at its deepest and most real level it is in the consciousness of being there. Apparently the experience did not come easily to Archbishop Ramsey but the one minute in God’s presence was more of the reality of prayer than all the twenty-nine minutes of preparation or approach.
To come into God’s presence never is easy. For a state to be still isn’t easy. The mind swims with the activities of the coming day, full of plans, full of the comments we would like to make to the people we shall meet, full perhaps of anxieties. Try as we may, these externals come crowding in to our minds as soon as we attempt to be still. The truth is it is not easy to dump this baggage on the threshold of God’s presence and be still, even for one minute. Nevertheless that is the place — still in God’s presence — where prayer is prayer.
Perhaps the best analogy of prayer is human friendship with another person. What we seek most of all in friendship is simply to be with that person. We do not rush in with a series of requests. There is no agenda. And the deeper the friendship the less is talking necessary. The friends are simply happy to be together. They cannot always be so for there are other calls on them, not least of work, which may involve periods of separation, but they will retain the longing to be together again and make opportunities for it to happen. And then they will share their thoughts and possibly feelings. Prayer is like that. It is being in God’s presence. And the trouble to arrive here is counted worthwhile. We read in Luke 6:12 that Jesus climbed a mountain to be alone with God, and he continued all night in prayer. We are not to imagine he was asking God for things all the night long; no, he was consciously in God’s presence, and that he climbed a mountain (or if you prefer, sought the solitude of the hills) in order to be there suggests the effort that is required to accomplish it.
2. Our Father
But what should be in our minds when we are still in God’s presence? What should be our attitude? How should we comport ourselves? After all we are on Earth and God is in Heaven. We are created beings and he is the Creator. We are mortals and he is immortal. Jesus tells us. The dominant thought in our minds must be, “Our Father!” Our Father reminds us of the care and compassion of God for us, but it also reminds us of his transcendence — Our Father who art in Heaven. We must bear in mind his otherness, his majesty, his holiness. So, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
Part of the preparation for prayer, then, is to think where we are coming, and be conscious of our unworthiness to come at all, but also to be thankful that the way to God is open to us through Christ.
And then we make our requests, the Lord’s Prayer encourages this — “Give us this day our daily bread”; but we make these requests conscious of the necessity for God’s will to be supreme, not our own, “Thy will be done.” Indeed no small part of the purpose of prayer is to bring our wills into line with his will so far as we can perceive it. All this conditions the way in which we present our requests. We cannot tell God what he should do. We need not give him information about our needs or other people’s needs. The proper way in prayer is simply to mention those needs and the people we care about in God’s presence, or to use an old-fashioned phrase, to lay our burdens at Jesus’s feet and leave them there. After all we do not always, if ever, know what is best, but God knows.
Our prayers will always be fumbling exercises even if we doll them up in the cadences of Elizabethan English. Sometimes they will be little more than a recital of complaints (O yes, see the Psalms), and a recital of other people’s woes. Saint Paul knew all about this inadequacy of our praying which is why he wrote in the words of my text, “We do not even know how we ought to pray,” but then we are not on our own in our praying, for “the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness. Through our inarticulate groans (what a way to describe prayer!) the Spirit himself is pleading for us,” in fact “we have an advocate with the Father,” who so presents our feeble attempts at prayer that God will hear and answer. Do we need confirmation of this? Then we have the words of Jesus as the fourth gospel presents them the night before his death, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another to be your advocate who will be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:16-17)
3. Corporate Prayer
We have been thinking about private prayer, but there is also corporate prayer, prayer in and with the church, and in a way this is primary. We read in Acts 2 that following the day of Pentecost those in whom the Spirit dwelt met continually in prayer together. And when we pray on our own we should not forget that we are praying with the church because we are members of it. It is in the church, that is in the fellowship of God’s people, that his presence is particularly realized. Jesus said, “Where two or three have met together in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
This real and royal presence of God comes to expression powerfully in the Eucharist; which being the case it seems most appropriate that our private prayers for others and for ourselves should find a place there. Ought there not to be therefore space or spaces in Eucharistic worship for silence to make this possible? Every moment ought not to be filled with movement, music and singing. By all means let the service be impressive for we are coming into the presence of the Lord who is king, but let there be stillness so that we may feel ourselves there. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
Speak Lord in the stillness
While I wait on thee,
Hushed my heart to listen
—E. M. Grimes
True as all this is we are not to imagine that we can forecast when God will become a real presence in our own experience. After he was risen, Christ did indeed make himself known to two disciples at the end of the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread, but Mary Magdalene encountered him in a garden, and the disciples gathered together in a room, and seven of them by the lakeside in Galilee when they had been unsuccessfully fishing. We never quite know when. The Spirit of God does not operate according to strict schedules. In a way he is actually untidy. His freedom is as real as that. So I did not blink an eyelid when a lady told me the other day rather reticently (I liked the reticence) that she had recently felt the reality of God as she was sitting alone under a tree in her garden. After all there is the story of Nathanael in John, chapter 1. And some of us know the disturbing reality of the Divine Presence when some passage of the Bible we are reading suddenly “comes alive.” All at once truth seems to be standing opposite to us. And then, of course, prayer is the only possible reaction.
What shall we call this? Spiritual experience? And are those who know it for themselves spiritually-minded men and women? And is all this experience to be included under the word “spirituality”? Of this we can be certain — the Holy Spirit is at work wherever and whenever we find ourselves in the presence of God, it is the Spirit who has brought it about, meeting our spirits (with whom he has affinity) with his quickening and illuminating presence.
Does all this seem way beyond our spiritual capability? We know ourselves to be earthborn creatures, earthy, and immersed in the world’s affairs. Most of us are not mystical by nature. But there is good news in my text from Romans 8:26-27. “In the same way the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness. We do not even know how we ought to pray, but through our inarticulate groans the Spirit himself is pleading for us, and God who searches our inmost being knows what the Spirit means, because he pleads for God’s people in God’s own way.” What a relief! So those sometimes tedious and halting petitions in church are not wasted effort, nor those feeble prayerful aspirations in the privacy of our hearts. The Spirit presents them in a way that God hears. So let us pray.