I am embarrassed to admit it. I was well into my thirties when I attended a workshop on Centering Prayer given by Fr. Basil Pennington, OCSO. Those few days at Seton Hall University not only transformed my prayer, they changed my life. Suddenly I was no longer wasting time giving myself a type of report card each time I prayed. How life-giving to finally come to realize that the goal of prayer wasn’t gleaning scriptural insights, or re-aligning my moral attitude, or even acquiring a peaceful state. It was simply BEING with God.
One of the most common statements or expressions I hear from folks whenever I give a parish mission or retreat is, “Father, I don’t know HOW to pray.” My first response is that even Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray, so relax! While sometimes this can be a ploy for excusing ourselves from doing something pro-active — by saying we lack education or formation, knowledge or experience or wisdom — I also think that a lot of us “avoid” prayer simply because we have a preconceived and faulty notion of what prayer is supposed to be.
In today’s first reading from the Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that our groaning, our disillusionment, our fuzzy thinking and, yes, even our tears and frustrated hopes, can all be prayer. Maybe that is why Paul wants to reassure us, “all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now…” And how liberating to come to the realization that I don’t have to have answers or conclusions. If I am confident of God’s loving presence, I can leave my prayer open-ended, and the Spirit helps in my weakness. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26)
Fr. Jack Conley, C.P. is the director of the Office of Mission Effectiveness. He is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.