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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ When We Think We Can't Pray ~

Someone wrote, "I was taken aback when I read the newsletter. [Prayer's Influence on God's Plans, November 17]. I thought we should stand in as prayer partners or prayer warriors for others who can't pray for themselves and others who didn't know better. I do not understand the text, but I am striving to learn and to become more spiritual. I know that Jesus Christ died for me and I know that He hears my cries and He knows my sorrows...there is a lot I have to learn."

The letter merits a follow-up Weekly Reflection. The Scriptures do urge us to pray together and for one another. There is great power in "the communion of the saints" and when "two or three gather in My Name." (The Weekly Reflections are sent to our subscriber list in prayer and I frequently ask the newsletter recipients to pray for us.) 

As for not being able to pray for ourselves or not knowing better, St. Paul's consolation comes to mind. "In certain ways we are weak, but the Spirit is here to help us. For example, when we don't know how to pray for what we need, the Spirit prays for us in groanings that cannot be put into words. All of our thoughts are known to God. He can understand what is in the mind of the Spirit, as the Spirit prays for God's people" (Romans 8:26-27). Christ called the Holy Spirit our "Advocate."

There are people who are too sick, distressed or emotionally oppressed to even think, yet pray. We certainly must stand "in the gap" for them, and also call upon the Holy Spirit to "groan" in that unutterable language on their behalf.

However, to enter a bit more deeply into this area, we best consider what constitutes prayer. Pastor Richard Wurmbrand endured 14 years of torture by the former Soviet Communist regime, three of which were in confinement in a cell thirty feet below ground. He writes, "In solitary confinement, we could not pray as before. We were unimaginably hungry; we had been drugged until we acted like idiots. We were as weak as skeletons. The Lord's Prayer was much too long for us -- we could not concentrate enough to say it. My only prayer repeated again and again was, 'Jesus, I love You.' " (Tortured for Christ, 1998.)

Years ago I heard Wurmbrand speak to an assembly where he described even greater depths of inability. Wurmbrand explained how he no longer could worship in prayer, being beyond words. He said he thought to himself something like, "If I could just stand up, Lord, would that be acceptable worship?" But Wurmbrand couldn't stand. What followed was, "If I could then just raise my arm in your name, would that be enough?" With the little strength he had left, he struggled to raise his open hand into the darkness of his cell. He couldn't quite get it above his head. But he knew it was acceptable. That was his prayer, more profound and articulate than any I have ever offered.

Carlo Carretto, who joined the Order of the Little Brothers of Jesus during a prominent career as a Catholic activist, retreated into the desert of North Africa. Although a very different place than Wurmbrand's desert in the Communist gulag, Carretto observed a similar progression of prayer: "Every word of consolation seems like a lie. One believes one has been abandoned by God. In this deeply painful state, prayer becomes true and strong even though it may be as dry as dust.

"The soul speaks to its God out of its poverty and pain; still more out of its impotence and abjection. Words become even fewer and barer. One is reduced to silence, but this is a step forward in prayer! It is limitless, whereas every word has a limit. And spiritual greed? Oh, that's always there! It hides under the ashes, but it is less violent, more prudent.

"God now again intervenes with his consolation, since it would be impossible to live in that state of abandonment. He returns to encourage the soul with the touch of his gentleness. The soul accepts that touch with gratitude. But it has become so timid through the blows it has received that it dare not ask anything more...Left to myself, with my own strength, I have felt the painful reality that without God's help we cannot say even 'Abba, Father.'

"Deep down the soul has understood that it must let itself be carried, that it must abandon itself to its Savior, that alone it can do nothing, that God can do everything. And if it remains still and motionless, as though bound in the faithfulness of God, it will quickly realize that things have changed, and that its progress, though still painful, is in the right direction.

"It is the direction of love! This realization will come like light after darkness, the midday sun after the dawn. What matters is to let God get on with it." (Letters from the Desert, 2002.)

More thoughts from Wurmbrand: "The Word became flesh two thousand years ago...The word of God and the spirit of love are always longing for incarnation...We throw only words into the agitated sea of this world, and the multitude of words takes the place of reality.

"God has brought me into the sphere of silence. The silence around me is absolute. You cannot hear the guards approach. God wishes me to unlearn words. It is becoming more and more difficult for me to formulate long, clear sentences...I live in profound silence, a silence like that inhabited by the fish in the depths of the sea. The secret sign of the first Christians was a fish...

"Instead of a world in which bookshops sell volumes of sermons and poetry, I would like a world in which each man and woman is a poem of high thought, filled with melody and colour. If I am a hindrance to the coming of such a world, may God kill me here in prison! But this is how the world should be... Love all men, my dear brothers, but bestow the greatest part of your love on the ugliest souls. They need your love more than anyone else. You, my fellow-prisoners, must show your greatest love to the Communist torturers and those who betrayed us. The beautiful souls can endure without tokens of your love. Spend your energy where it is most needed!

"Let the word become flesh in us, flesh of a man who accepts the kiss of Judas and calls him friend, even when he comes at the head of an armed gang to arrest you." (With God in Solitary Confinement, 1969.)

And that is the call of this Advent preparation to celebrate the incarnation of the Word of God into humanity. Christmas is a special time to realize that Word of infinitely loving power continues to desire to incarnate with increasing fullness into every one of us. As Carretto says, "What matters is to let God get on with it."

"O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. [Like the Christ child,] a weaned child on its mother's breast, even so is my soul" (Psalm 131).

(This Weekly Reflection is dedicated to the "someone" whose letter mentioned in the beginning inspired it. He is a wrongfully convicted prisoner in the US. The dedication, with prayer, is extended to the many like him, especially those we know personally. I thank them for their inspiration and teachings, and raise my hand toward the heavens in silent prayer for them.)


John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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