“Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he lets God be most fully present in prayer.”— Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope
Invite the Holy Spirit into Your Life
Are our conversations with the Holy Spirit of the passing kind or of a more substantial nature? Substantial conversations are fruitful conversations. Our goal should be to have the best possible sort of substantial conversation — one with the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is the substance shared between the Father and the Son.
Inviting the presence of the Holy Spirit into our prayer is the first tip, because without it, our prayer would lack the necessary substance to be what it ought to be. What the switch is to a light, the Holy Spirit is to our prayer.
To invite is to invoke, summon, call upon, or make an appeal. In our intercessory prayer, we are invoking the presence of God into our lives and making an appeal before Him to transform the life or situation for which we are praying. Jesus said He will be with us always (see Matt. 28:20), and by virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit, He is!
Our invocation is the fruit of an interior action — the opening of our hearts. To invite the Holy Spirit into our lives of prayer is a response to an action that God has already performed. God is always one step ahead of us; He has first knocked on the doors of our hearts (see Rev. 3:20). Therefore, our first step toward Him is always a response to His initial invitation (see CCC 2567).
Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). Behind every good asking, seeking, and knocking is the goodness of the Holy Spirit. When talking about the Holy Spirit moving in our lives, it is not uncommon to use such words as “nudging,” “prompting,” and “motivating.” All these words have their reference point in the Holy Spirit, who inspires. We are nudged, prompted, and motivated to do what we ought to do because we first have been inspired by the protagonist of all good prayer — the Holy Spirit. In intercessory prayer, we have so much more power than we realize, not power from within, but from without — the power of the Holy Spirit given to us as gift. When we pray without the Holy Spirit, we are without the breath of God (out of breath); when we pray in the Holy Spirit, we are full of breath — full of life!
The gift of the Holy Spirit is unlimited. In Christ’s words, “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit; the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:34–35). To paraphrase Fr. David Pivonka, President of Franciscan University of Steubenville, God does not portion out “a serving” of the Holy Spirit to each of us; instead, He gives all of the Holy Spirit to everyone — unmeasured. As a people, we are not satisfied until we are full. We always want more. We want everything supersized. God is that “more” because He is infinite. He is the “supersize” because there is nothing superior to Him. The word “super” is derived from the Latin supra, meaning “above,” and there is nothing above God.
As we invite the Holy Spirit into our prayer, we are inviting what is infinite in value. I have prayed for others while lacking confidence (faith) in what God would do for the one for whom I was praying. But to pray in the Spirit, who is the unmeasured gift, is to pray with confidence in the fact that God withholds nothing in our requests. Even if God’s response is not to our liking, it remains infinite in its value because God’s response always has salvation in mind.
One way to get at what this Holy Spirit–filled prayer looks like is to imitate the Spirit-filled prayer of Jesus.
Imitate the Spirit-filled Prayer of Jesus
We imitate what we hold in high regard. Growing up playing basketball, I imitated everything Michael Jordan did. I mean everything, from the finest detail of how he dribbled the ball to the way in which he wore his socks. In my mind, imitating everything Michael Jordan did was going to somehow make me a better basketball player.
In the spiritual life, we have the perfect reference point in Christ. Saint Paul said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). We imitate Saint Paul as he imitated Christ, and we imitate Christ because it will make us the best possible Christians we could be.
In order to understand the Spirit-filled prayer of Jesus as the basis for our intercessory prayer, let’s focus on the action of Jesus when He healed the deaf man with a speech impediment.
“He put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’ ” (Mark 7:33–34).
Note the initial action taken by Jesus: He “looked up.” He looked up because power does not come from below but from above. So, too, intercessory prayer does not begin with a glance downward or ahead of us but with a glance upward. In fact, we pray on bended knee because it encourages the posture of looking up.
Jesus then “sighed deeply.” Before He even uttered a word, He expressed a groan. Jesus sighs and groans because the best prayer always “digs deep.” Often, when we push ourselves athletically, in the weight room or on the soccer field, we “dig deep” with sighs and groans. The God-Man encourages us to begin our prayers of intercession by “digging deep” — reaching into the innermost place of our faith in God with sighs and groans.
After Jesus looked up and sighed deeply, He uttered one word: Ephphatha! The Lord’s command, “Be opened,” performs a dual action. On the one hand, He commands the opening of the ears and loosening of the tongue of the deaf man so that he may be healed (see Mark 7:35). On the other hand, Jesus simultaneously commands that the heavens “be opened” so that the power and workings of God may be made manifest. We do not look up just to see the color of the sky or the birds flying by. We look up to see what lies beyond — the heavens. As we pray, we might envision heaven “opening up” on behalf of the one for whom we are praying.
A close reading of the Gospel of Mark suggests one more way in which we should imitate Christ in our intercessory prayer: commentators have noted that whenever Jesus speaks in Aramaic in the Gospels, in every case, He prays with intimacy. Before Jesus restores Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter to life (Mark 5:35–43), He dismisses all present except for the parents. As Jesus prays over the little girl, He employs the Aramaic Talitha koum (“Little girl, I say to you, ‘Get up’ ”). This healing was personal.
During the Passion, Jesus speaks the Aramaic Abba and Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? These are cries of an intimate conversation — Abba, “Father,” amcry of filial intimacy, and Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” a question that rises from the intimacy of Christ’s heart. Our Lord’s praying in the Spirit was a prayer of closeness — this is why Saint Paul teaches that all good prayer begins with the cry, “Abba, Father!” (Rom. 8:15).
As we learn the language of looking up, sighing, and groaning — uttering words that call upon God to “open up” heaven — we learn the way of intimacy by imitating the prayer of Jesus. Indeed, “intercession is the prayer of petition which leads us to pray as Jesus did” (CCC 2634).