Q. Can a person pray in silence or do we have to use words? I read somewhere in the Bible that we do not have to speak when the Spirit is praying in us. Do you know where this Bible passage is?
-- L.J., Concord, N.H.
A. Here’s a reply from Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
In St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, there is a very memorable and helpful statement about the role of the Spirit in our prayer. It reads: "The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings" (8:26). I expect that this is the passage you had in mind.
Prayer can be, for all of us at one time or other -- perhaps very often -- "inexpressible," meaning that we do not find the words for our prayer. We are not sure what we want to say and become easily distracted and incoherent in our thoughts.
But, for St. Paul, the Spirit comes to our aid and prays in us and through us in a wordless way. This reminds us that prayer does not begin with us and end with God, but that prayer begins with God, finds expression in us and has its ending in God.
Our attempts to pray are founded in God's self-communication. Think of the Psalms and the Lord's Prayer -- expressions of prayer that are not of human invention, but are inspired -- that is, originate -- in God himself.
Simply kneeling, sitting or standing in a quiet mood and asking the Spirit to pray in us has a long history in Christian spirituality. Even if we become distracted, we can turn the objects of our distraction into the objects of prayer.
Instead of focusing on words and formulas, we can let images and religious symbols occupy our minds and suggest ways of thinking and acting that are edifying and sanctifying.
This is the kind of Spirit-filled contemplative prayer that is commended not just to clergy and men and women Religious, but to all Christians.