The Solemnity of Pentecost would be upon us in a week, and I had a few ideas warming up in my head through prayer and meditation. Usually, a relatively ‘good’ homily would have such a nebulous foundation and a prompting in my heart would bring me to narrow them down to one or two focal points and I would launch into writing out my thoughts. But something happened last week. I hit a ‘speed bump’ health wise. I caught a very bad case of Influenza A at the beginning of the week, and ended up having to be hospitalized simply because I was not any ordinary patient trying to overcome a simple bug. I was an immunity suppressed transplant survivor who risked much in battling something which could potentially endanger my life.
It was while I was in hospital and lying terribly enfeebled and oftentimes almost in a daze with body temperatures rising to an almost scorching 40 degrees Centigrade, that I shared once again a certain incapacity and powerlessness with countless others who may be in some similar state of impotence and helplessness. I just could not pray. Try as I might, I was weakened to the point of exhaustion at times, and with the naïve innocence of a child brought my mind to God and wondered if my fatigued and debilitated state itself could at all be a prayer that would be acceptable. The peace that I received was a blessed assurance, and it brought to mind what St Paul said about the Spirit praying and interceding for us with inexpressible groanings (Rom 8).
I am not often one who groans and moans much when ill. I may feel uncomfortable and even racked with rigors from fevers, but I am more of a ‘silent sufferer’. There is already way too much noise in this world, and I should not let my agony add to the existent cacophony. But I do know that many other people come from the other side of this audible spectrum. It was while I was in this incapacitated state of being early last week that I had an inner experience of what it meant to pray – not in words, but in groanings that were too deep for words, where the body’s prayer becomes one’s entire prayer offering in union with the Spirit.
It would be mere naiveté and an over simplification to say that all groanings can become prayer. If only it were so. We need to be doing this in union with the Holy Spirit so that our prayer without words are directed toward God. It may not have always to be in a deliberate act of love, because God will always love us where we are – we could be in a state of confoundedness, confusion, disappointment, exasperation or even just experiencing ennui. When God is the object of these expressions of our being human, it can lift and transform our human being to encounter the divine. After all, this is the promise of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit enables us to have a share in the divine life.
This must be that point where spirituality goes beyond literacy, and where the spirit of poverty so extolled by the Gospel rings true. When one’s awareness of the total otherness of God in the sight of one’s own infinitesimal powerlessness, one knows with great intuition that God is unimpressed by numbers, success, degrees, symbols of status of any kind, and certainly not by one’s ordination. It puts a completely fresh understanding of the Sermon on the Mount’s teaching of how happy are the poor.
I recently came across a wonderful short yet endearing speech given by a genteel Benedictine monk and spiritual writer David Steindl-Rast on happiness, where he surmised so wisely that one is only truly happy when one is also truly grateful. You can only be truly grateful when you have an experience of emptiness or poverty. Being filled, being sated and being self-sufficient will hardly give one cause to be grateful or thankful, because the human heart is always pining for more, whether of something different, or more of the same. Only in this light does it make sound spiritual sense to see not just the necessity but also the good in poverty, in suffering, and in some forms of tribulations in life.
Being aware of one’s ineptitude (brought on with the virtue of humility) clears the ground, so to speak, for God to make his divine entry into our often-overfilled lives. Sometimes, it is our afflicted state that precipitates this necessary emptying that allows the Spirit to effectively pray in and with us, as I was to experience it myself. If that were truly the case, how can one not be grateful then, even for something like an illness? For with deep faith, even utterances as incoherent as groanings can allow our whole selves to be presented to God as a prayer that he can take delight in.