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Chapter 29: Prayer: The Fundamental Category of Christian Action

Question C: How does the Christian’s life of prayer depend on the Holy Spirit?

1. St. Paul teaches that Christians need and receive the special help of the Holy Spirit to pray as they ought: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8.26–27).

2. This passage is frequently taken to mean simply that the Spirit causes us to ask as we should and stirs right desires in us.5 There seems no reason, however, for excluding a more straightforward meaning of the Spirit “himself intercedes for us.”

3. We have good grounds for thinking of ourselves as having distinct personal relationships with each of the three divine persons (24‑C). The Holy Spirit is the gift given by the Father to those who ask (see Lk 11.13). The General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours teaches: “The unity of the Church at prayer is brought about by the Holy Spirit, who is the same in Christ (See Lk 10.21), in the whole Church, and in every baptized person.”6

According to the promise of Jesus, the Spirit comes and remains (see Jn 14.16–18). He is not only with us as a principle, but present in person. The children of God are not left in loneliness like orphans. The Spirit instructs (see Jn 14.26). He defends and guides (see Jn 16.7–14; Gal 5.25). Because of the presence of the Spirit, we have a concrete realization that we are children of God (see Rom 8.16). We cry out to God: “Father!” (see Rom 8.15). The Spirit makes up for our infantile condition by helping us in our weakness (see Rom 8.26–27). He takes a personal interest in our growth in the Christian life (see Eph 4.30).

4. The work of the Spirit in the Christian’s life of prayer might be explained as follows. Prayer is the basic act of Christian life. It is normally a work of living faith—in other words, a work of charity. In praying, God’s children act toward him according to the divine nature which he has begotten in them through the gift of the Spirit, as St. Paul also teaches: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8.14–16). However, as undeveloped, embryonic children of God (see 1 Jn 3.2), we are not yet capable of acting fully by ourselves according to the nature we have from the Father; we do not yet “see him as he is,” that is, experience the fullness of divine life.

5. The Spirit, who “is the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” therefore somehow mediates our relationship with them, supplying what we simply cannot supply ourselves, as a pregnant mother mediates her unborn child’s relationships with its human father, with other people, and with the world at large, doing for it what it cannot yet do for itself.

6. Prayer is the fundamental category of Christian life, and the Christian’s life of prayer depends on the Holy Spirit in the way explained. Therefore, the Christian’s entire life is supplemented by the work of the Spirit. Since this mysterious communion between Christians and the Holy Spirit pertains to them precisely as children of God—that is, according to the divinity they share in by adoption—it is distinct from their cooperation by human acts with God’s redemptive work in Jesus.

7. Hence, the fact that the whole of Christian life is lived in the Spirit in no way means that the Holy Spirit fulfills any of the Christian’s human responsibilities. Rather, just as Jesus’ communion as Word with the Spirit is no substitute for his faithful fulfillment as man of his personal vocation, so Christians’ life in the Spirit leaves them with undiminished moral responsibility.

God allows us to share in his life by degrees rather than all at once, not because he is grudging or because he lacks the power to overcome evil and divinize us without our help, but because he is generous and has the power to make us cooperators to some extent in his work of redeeming and divinizing us.

The Father loves us and desires our fulfillment in his own life with creative intensity: “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thes 4.3). He sends us the help we need to accomplish what we cannot do for ourselves. First the Word, then the Holy Spirit. Through them we receive from the Father the gift of our own powers, our own responsibilities, our own actions, and our own merits.

But over and above all this, the Spirit in person unites the Church, and so the Church comes to her Lord in communion with him. Likewise, the Word in person will unite all things in heaven and on earth (see Eph 1.10) and deliver the kingdom to the Father (see 1 Cor 15.24). Therefore, it seems that we can say without detracting from their equal divinity that the Spirit prays with us and on our behalf, and likewise that our Lord Jesus intercedes for us not only insofar as he is man but also (although in a different sense) insofar as he is the eternal Son.

5. See, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas, In Rom., viii, 5, 692–93.

6. See “General Instruction,” The Liturgy of the Hours, 1:27.