Sighs too deep for words

  • August 8, 2012

Their parents discovered the two small girls going from house to house in their neighbourhood, up stairs to porches, down stairs to the next front door. On their knees.

The family had taken a trip to Martyrs’ Shrine at Midland, Ont.  Pilgrims there pray their way up the great staircase to the shrine, on their knees. So taken were the young sisters with this unusual experience that, back home, they instituted a prayer pilgrimage of their own.

Prayer seems to come easily to children, though the rest of us frequently report finding it difficult. As a friend said to me, “We’re trying to communicate with someone we can’t see, hear or touch.” Difficult!

James finds it so. His daughter Sara’s life-long health struggles have been hard on both, and James often feels desperate and alone. He also has a life-long habit of prayer, daily, regularly, incessantly beseeching God.

James has a habit of measuring himself. “I wonder,” he says. “Is it because I’m not praying enough that Sara isn’t getting better? Or am I praying the wrong way?” He looks for new ways to pray, asks priests and spiritual guides, and does spiritual reading. What’s he doing wrong? If he knew, he’d change it. In the meantime, he keeps praying.

Despite his worries that he doesn’t know how to pray, James has established and maintained a habit of prayer. Sometimes it gives him comfort, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes he can connect it with change, sometimes he can’t. He’s prayed in different ways, alone, with others, at church, but he’s never stopped.

There’s no substitute for a habit of prayer. My spiritual father began each day with three hours of prayer. Naturally a nighthawk, he eventually developed the practice of retiring early so he could rise early and keep that three-hour tryst. “Don’t you ever take a day off?” people would ask; he invariably replied, “Do you ever take a day off breathing?”

You might call James a student of prayer. You might also call him an expert at prayer. He doesn’t see it that way. But mystics, theologians, teachers down through the centuries have told us in various ways what John Paul II said succinctly: “Prayer is understood through prayer.” James is in a good position to understand prayer.

In the silence of prayer, we may discover a few surprising voices within us. We may find we approach God as if He were a tyrant and we His slaves: “He’s in charge and I’m in need, so I’d better beg.” Or as though God were a vending machine for our use: “if I say nine Hail Mary’s every day for nine days, he’ll produce what I ask for.” Or we might be treating Him rather like a parking meter: “I’ll put in a rosary a day to fulfill my obligation so I can go about my business.” In such ways, we may limit or misunderstand God. That doesn’t mean we aren’t really praying, or our prayer is bad or useless. It probably means we’re growing in our relationship with God — and need to keep up the habit of prayer!

How else can we learn that God is not a tyrant, a vending machine or a parking meter, that our prayer time is a doorway to eternity, a moment of intimate presence such as all human hearts long for?

How else can we discover that God really is God — and we aren’t? Even if we should pray perfectly, we don’t replace God, much as we might wish to when He doesn’t do our will.

We need to grow in prayer. Yet there’s no way to measure it. James doesn’t pray well or pray poorly. He prays. He prays because God is seeking him. 

The prayers we say, the words, gestures, hymns, are necessary and important, but they themselves aren’t prayer. When we don’t know how to pray, St. Paul tells us, “the Spirit intercedes, with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). There’s a deep, still place, underneath it, where our heart is always simply present to God — whether or not we’re aware of it. The habit of prayer can help us bring our whole selves to this intimate place where the heart dwells with God. That’s Paradise, Adam and Eve naked and unashamed with God. That’s heaven, you and me fully alive and fully revealed in God.

Here on Earth, it’s hard to understand when prayers like James’s for his daughter don’t bring about what he hopes. And it’s awe-inspiring to see the depth of faith and love, love of Sara and abiding love of the God he can’t understand, can’t control, can’t stay away from. My hospitalized mother said to me recently, as she struggled with pain: “You can’t have prayer without love.”

If prayer helps us “abide in His love” (John 15:10), then no wonder “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of” (Alfred Lord Tennyson, Morte d’Arthur).