Yesterday at the Wednesday General Audience, our Holy Father offered this profound and comforting teaching on prayer in the Letters of Saint Paul. I cannot begin to say how much the Holy Father’s words went straight to my heart. He addressed struggles in prayer that I have known and that many souls familiar to me have also known. This text is a gift for the first day of the Pentecost Novena.
Dear brothers and sisters,
The Prayer of Saint Paul
In the last catecheses we reflected on prayer in the Acts of the Apostles. Today I would like to begin to speak about prayer in the Letters of St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. First, I would like to note that it is not by chance that his Letters are introduced and conclude with expressions of prayer: at the beginning, thanksgiving and praise; at the end, the wish that the grace of God guide the journey of the community to whom the writing is addressed. The content of the Apostle’s Letters develops between the opening formula: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:8), and the final wishes: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (1 Corinthians 16:23). The prayer of St. Paul manifests a great wealth of forms — from thanksgiving to benediction, from praise to petition and intercession, from hymns to supplication: a variety of expressions, which demonstrate how prayer involves and penetrates all the situations of life, those which are personal as well as those of the community he is addressing.
Placing Our Time at God’s Disposition
A first element that the Apostle wants us to understand is that prayer should not be seen merely as a good work that we carry out for God, an action of ours. First and foremost, it is a gift, the fruit of the living, vivifying presence of the Father of Jesus Christ in us. In the Letter to the Romans he writes: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (8:26). And we know how true the Apostle’s saying is: “We do not know how to pray as we ought”. We want to pray, but God is far off, we do not have the words, the language, to speak with God, nor even the thought to do so. We can only open ourselves, place our time at God’s disposition, wait for Him to help us to enter into true dialogue. The Apostle says: this very lack of words, this absence of words, yet this desire to enter into contact with God, is prayer that the Holy Spirit not only understands, but brings and interprets before God. This very weakness of ours becomes — through the Holy Spirit — true prayer, true contact with God. The Holy Spirit is, as it were, the interpreter who makes us, and God, understand what it is we wish to say.
Rely Increasingly Upon Him
In prayer we experience — more than in other aspects of life — our weakness, our poverty, our being creatures, for we are placed before the omnipotence and transcendence of God. And the more we advance in listening and in dialogue with God, so that prayer becomes the daily breath of our souls, the more we also perceive the measure of our limitations, not only in the face of the concrete situations of everyday life, but also in our relationship with the Lord. The need to trust, to rely increasingly upon Him then grows in us; we come to understand that “we do not know … how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26).
Toward the Heights of God
And it is the Holy Spirit who helps our inability, who enlightens our minds and warms our hearts, guiding us as we turn to God. For St. Paul, prayer is above all the work of the Holy Spirit in our humanity, to take our weakness and to transform us from men bound to material realities into spiritual men. In the First Letter to the Corinthians he says: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths in spiritual terms” (2:12-13). By means of His abiding in our fragile humanity, the Holy Spirit changes us; He intercedes for us; He leads us toward the heights of God (cf. Romans 8:26).
The Spirit of Christ
Our union with Christ is realized by this presence of the Holy Spirit, for He is the Spirit of the Son of God, in whom we are made children. St. Paul speaks of the Spirit of Christ (cf. Romans 8:9), and not only of the Spirit of God. It is obvious: if Christ is the Son of God, His Spirit is also the Spirit of God. Thus, if the Spirit of God — the Spirit of Christ — already drew near to us in the Son of God and Son of Man, then the Spirit of God also becomes the spirit of man and touches us; we can enter into the communion of the Spirit. It is as if to say that not only God the Father became visible in the Incarnation of the Son, but also that the Spirit of God revealed Himself in the life and action of Jesus, of Jesus Christ, who lived, was crucified, died and was raised.
Inebriated with the Holy Spirit and Rooted in Christ
The Apostles reminds us that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Spirit, then, directs our hearts toward Jesus Christ, such that “it is not longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us” (cf. Galations 2:20). In his Catecheses on the Sacraments, reflecting on the Eucharist, St. Ambrose affirms: “He who is inebriated with the Holy Spirit is rooted in Christ” (5,3,17: PL 16, 450).
And now I would like to highlight three consequences for our Christian lives when we allow the Spirit of Christ, and not the spirit of the world, to work in us as the interior principle of all our actions.
Freedom from Fear
First, prayer animated by the Spirit enables us to abandon and to overcome every form of fear and slavery, and so to experience the true freedom of the children of God. Without prayer that nourishes our being in Christ each day in a steadily growing intimacy, we find ourselves in the condition described by St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans: we do not do the good we want, but the evil we do not want (cf. Romans 7:19).
The Ability to Follow the Desire for True Joy
And this is the expression of the alienation of the human being, of the destruction of our freedom due to the condition of our being that is brought about by original sin: we want the good that we do not do, and we do what we do not want, evil. The Apostle wants us to understand that it is not our will that first and foremost frees us from this condition, nor is it the Law, but rather the Holy Spirit. And since “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17), through prayer we experience the freedom given by the Spirit: an authentic freedom, which is freedom from evil and from sin for the good and for life, for God. The freedom of the Spirit, St. Paul continues, is never identical with libertinism or with the possibility of choosing evil but rather with the “fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). This is true freedom: the ability to actually follow the desire for the good, for true joy, for communion with God and not to be oppressed by the circumstances that take us down other roads.
A second consequence that comes about in our lives when we allow the Spirit of Christ to work in us is that our relationship with God becomes so deep that it cannot be affected by any circumstance or situation. We then come to understand that, through prayer, we are not delivered from trials or sufferings, but we are able to live them in union with Christ, with His sufferings, with a view to participating also in His glory (cf. Romans 8:17).
The Impression That We Have Not Been Heard
Many times, in our prayer, we ask God to be freed from physical or spiritual evil, and we do this with great trust. Yet we often have the impression that we have not been heard, and then we run the risk of becoming discouraged and of not persevering. In reality, there is no human cry that God does not hear, and it is precisely in continual and faithful prayer that we come to understand with St. Paul that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Prayer does not exempt us from trial and suffering; indeed — St. Paul says — we “groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23); he says that prayer does not exempt us from suffering, but that prayer allows us to experience it and to face it with new strength, with the same trust as Jesus, who — according to the Letter to the Hebrews — “in the days of his flesh offered prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to God who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard on account of his complete abandonment to Him” (5:7). God the Father’s response to the Son, to his loud cries and tears, was not deliverance from suffering, from the Cross, from death; rather, it was a much greater fulfillment, a much deeper response; through the Cross and death, God responded with the Resurrection of the Son, with new life. Prayer animated by the Holy Spirit leads us, too, to live the journey of life with its daily trials and suffering in full hope and trust in God, who responds as he responded to the Son.
And, third, the prayer of the believer opens out to the dimensions of humanity and of the whole creation, by taking on the “eager longing of creation for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). This means that prayer, sustained by the Spirit of Christ who speaks in our interior depths, never remains closed in upon itself, it is never only prayer for me; rather, it opens out to a sharing in the suffering of our time, of others. It becomes intercession for others, and thus freedom for me; a channel of hope for all creation and the expression of that love of God, which has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit who has been given to us (cf. Romans 5:5). And this is a sign of true prayer, that it does not end in ourselves, but opens out to others and so liberates me, and so helps in the redemption of the world.
The Holy Spirit: Light and Fire of Our Prayer
Dear brothers and sisters, St. Paul teaches us that in our prayer we must open ourselves to the presence of the Holy Spirit, who prays in us with sighs too deep for words, in order to bring us to adhere to God with all our hearts and with all our being. The Spirit of Christ becomes the strength of our “weak” prayer, the light of our “extinguished” prayer, the fire of our “cold and arid” prayer, by giving us true interior freedom, by teaching us to live facing life’s trials in the certainty that we are not alone, and by opening us to the horizons of humanity and creation “which groans in travail until now” (Romans 8:22). Thank you.