"With sighs too deep for words"

Last night in worship, we found ourselves deep into the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which Paul offers one of his most evocative phrases:


Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (8:26 NRSV)

ccplogo.gif“We do not know how to pray as we ought.”  I’ve been quite struck by how many of my conversations with people over the past month or two have touched on that struggle.  Some have spoken of how hard they find it to establish and maintain any practice of ongoing daily prayer, while others have confessed a difficulty in knowing what or how they should pray at all.  Many of the people with this latter struggle have hit what I characterized in my sermon as a “wall of logic,” in that prayers for particular things or around specific issues seem either too insignificant or self-serving to voice in the context of personal prayer.  There are 101 challenges in cultivating a practice of prayer, and often it seems easier to simply not pray at all than to work through those challenges.

It is here that I think Paul offers a rather extraordinary insight, namely that the beginning of prayer may well be found in wordlessness- in being mindful of the Spirit’s “sighs too deep for words” which are offered on our behalf.  Maybe from that wordlessness our halting words can be offered, “in the Spirit?”

Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury and a man known both for his scholarly work and for his prayerfulness, was once asked how long he prayed each day.  “Oh, about two minutes,” he answered, and then added, “but I spend about an hour in preparation.”  Part of that long hour was doubtlessly silence; a conscious and intentional slowing down and attending to life as it is lived in the Spirit.

But silence isn’t always the easiest of thing, particularly not for a people whose lives are filled with a steady diet of sound and images.  Elsewhere on this site, you can read an address I delivered at the Telling the Truth `07 conference in Victoria, in which I admitted to my own struggles to be truly still and silent.  Part of what I raised in that address was how helpful I find our saint ben’s Hear the Silence liturgies in creating a context for stillness, yet because we only offer those on a monthly basis (and not during the Summer months), they can only be one part of my discipline of cultivating stillness.

This is where the practice of praying a daily office of morning and evening prayer becomes so very crucial.  For those unfamiliar with this practice, it is basically a simple liturgy of prayers, psalms and readings, prayed at the beginning and ending of each day.  I (along with a number of people in the saint ben’s community) use a resource called Celebrating Common Prayer, which is published through the Anglican Franciscan order in England.  I’ve also begun to alternate that book with a more comprehensive resource called Benedictine Daily Prayer: a short breviary (the term “short” is a bit misleading, as this book has some 2200 pages!), though the pattern remains essentially the same.  Day by day, I make time and space to offer prayer in a form that has shaped and carried
Christians for well over 1500 years.

Not that this means that every morning and every evening are punctuated by some great and profound spiritual markings.  Some days, daily prayer feels pretty darned close to just saying things by rote; to saying rather than praying.  Realistically, though, that may be part of the life of prayer.  In her wonderful little book The Quotidian Mysteries (subtitled Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work,’ but don’t let the title put you off… she actually saying some gently subversive things about the way we view the domestic life…) Kathleen Norris embraces this quality of daily prayer:

No human being can pay full attention to the words he or she is praying every single day, and apparently this is how God would have it.  Sometimes, particularly at crisis points in our lives, we feel these words with our whole heart.  They seem to burn in our chests, and bring tears to our eyes.  We find that we mean them in ways that remain unfathomable, and on rare occasions a new interpretation of a line or image will come to us.

Norris goes on to write of the biblical canticles that are prayed each day in the office, touching first on the Benedictus, or Song of Zechariah, and then on Mary’s song, the Magnificat:

The Magnificat summons me to hope, at the end of each day, a hope that is an alternative to the world I have been working in.  A world in which I can address God, saying “You have shown strength with your arm,/ and scattered the proud in their schemes” (Lk 1:51, ELLC), a world in which the rich will come to know their emptiness and the hungry will  be filled.

“It is a paradox of human life,” she writes, “that in worship, as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for the greatest transformation.” It is one of the ways that the Spirit takes our words and carries them, in those deep sighs, into true prayer.

All to say, I suppose, that practice and discipline are not bad words when it comes to prayer.  If you find yourself interested in pursuing a daily office, you can access several online, including the daily office of the Northumbria Community, which offers a form in the celtic tradition.  You might also want to arrange to have a conversation with me about your other options, and to just generally explore some of what is involved in this way of prayer.

Jamie Howison

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