Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit Itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
Out of St. Paul we may see, first, 'that of ourselves we are sufficient' at all to do good; and that all good comes 'from the Father of lights,' and that in regard we must ask and receive at His hands from Whom it comes. Now the Apostle meeteth with another difficulty, which, is, how we may pray; for as we cannot perform any good thing of our selves unless God minister power, so we know not how to ask this grace at His hands. Therefore to answer that question of the disciples which desired that Christ should teach them how to pray, the Apostle saith, that because 'we know not what to pray as we ought,' therefore 'the Spirit doth help our infirmities.'
The Apostle begins at 'our infirmities' which he lays down in such sort as we may plainly see that our defects and wants are many. For as there are infirmities of the body which the Scripture calls 'the infirmities of Egypt,' whereunto [332/333] the saints of God are subject as well as other, as the Apostle speaks of Timothy that he had crebras infirmitasa; so the soul also hath certain infirmities, and that is the infirmity whereof the Apostle speaketh; for albeit our soul be the stronger part, as our Saviour speaketh when He saith, 'The spirit is indeed is strong,' yet it is subject to many infirmities and weaknesses when it doubteth of God's mercies, saying, 'Will the Lord absent Himself for ever? hath God forgotten to ber gracious?' which the Prophet acknowledgeth to be sign of infirmities. And as the spirit is weak, so there is a weakness of conscience: and no marvel if there be such infirmities in the bodies also, for life itself is but weak, in regard whereof it is said of God, that hereby He is content to spare us, for that 'He remembereth that we are but dust, and considereth 'that we are but even as the wind that passeth away.'
The difference is that, as Christ saith hæc infirmitas non est ad mortem, and the dropsy, palsy, and such like diseases and infirmities of body, are not mortal.
The second thing which the Apostle teacheth is, that howsoever we be, as the Apostle speaketh, compassed with infirmities, yet they are not past cure, for 'the Spirit helpeth our infirmity;' so that albeit we are subject to fall through weakness, yet 'there is hope concerning this thing,' and our error may be healed, for there is 'balm in Gilead,' which serveth to cure all our spiritual diseases.
Now the cure of the infirmities of our soul is not performed by any strength of our own nor by our spirit, but by the Spirit of God: for so long as our infirmities are but bodily, the 'Spirit of man will sustain them,' and there is help to be found; but when the 'spirit itself is wounded, then who can help it?'
The spirit of man must have help from a higher thing than itself, as from the Spirit of God, Which only is able to minister help.
The Apostle ascribeth to the Spirit of God two benefits: first, in regard of the life to come; secondly, in respect of this present life. For the one, as He is the Spirit of adoption, assures us of our estate in the life to come; namely, that as God hath adopted us to be His children, so we shall be fellow-heirs [333/334] with His own Son of His heavenly kingdom. Touching the other, because we are subject in this life to fall through infirmity we have this benefit from Him, that He stays and upholds us, and therefore is called Spiritus ¢ntil»yewj.
As our infirmities are manifold whether we respect the body or the soul, so the weakness and defects of our souls appear not only in good things which we cannot do 'because the flesh ever lusteth against the spirit so that we cannot do the things that we would,' but in evil things which we bear and are not able.
The evil things that we should bear, are not only afflictions and the crosses which we are subject to, which the Apostle proveth to be more tolerable because they are not worthy of the glory to come, but dilatio boni, wherein we need the virtue of magnamity, because it is a great cross; as the Wise Man saith, Spes quæ differtur affligit animam. Touching which affliction and crosses, because in this life we cannot obtain that which the Prophet wisheth, namely, 'to fly away (as it were) with the wings of a dove, that so we might be at rest,' therefore we must betake ourselves to the mourning of the dove, waiting patiently when God will give us tome to escape.
The means and ways whereby the Spirit doth help us are many, but he only meaneth prayer; to teach us, that howsoever it be not esteemed as it ought, yet it is the chief prop and principal pillar which the Holy Ghost useth to strengthen our weakness.
Therefore when the Apostle willeth that, 'first of all, prayers and supplications should be made for Kings and all in authority,' the reason is, as St. Augustine noteth, because both man's salvation, the honesty of life, knowledge of the truth, quietness of kingdoms, duties of Kings, and whatsoever tendeth to the public benefit, come by and from prayer; so that not only the Church and spiritual matters, but the commonwealth and temporal things, are stayed upon the pillar of prayer.
Wherefore as prayer is a special help, so we are not only exhorted by religion to use it, but nature itself binds unto it; for so long as we can devise any help of ourselves, or receive it from any other, so long we lean upon our own staff; but when all help fails, then we fly to prayer as our last refuge. And therefore when God is said to 'feed the ravens that call [334/335] upon Him,' that cry of theirs is the voice of nature; so that albeit men for a time lean to their stays and help, yet there is a day when all flesh shall be made to come unto Him Who only it is That heareth prayer; that is, when they lie 'howling upon their beds,' then they shall be fain to call upon God for help. So, howsoever Pharaoh in the pride of his heart say, 'Who is the Lord that I should hear His voice? yet He made him come to Him, when He plagued him with thundering, and rain, and hail, which made him send to Moses and Aaron that they might pray unto God for him.
But here the Apostle meaneth the prayer of the spirit, which always reckons prayer to be the first and chiefest help in all trouble, and not the last, as the prayer of the flesh doth.
Therefore, as we must discern simulacra virtutum from virtues themselves, and that which is natural from that which is of grace, so we must distinguish the prayer of the spirit from the carnal prayer; and be sure that the virtues which we have, if they be any, are not natural as those in many of the heathen, but that they proceed from grace and the working of God's spirit.
To the right framing of our prayer it is required that we do not only orare mente et spiritu, but as the Psalmist saith of the praising of God so we pray to God with understanding. Both our heart, our understanding, our affection must concur in making intercession to God.
For a second point, if prayer be a stay to use in our infirmities, then we must be careful that our prayers be not faint and weak, but that they proceed from the fervency and vehemency of the spirit; for as Christ saith, 'If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness?' if our prayer be nothing else but infirmity as it is for the most part, how great is our infirmity!
But the Apostle sheweth our weakness in prayer in that he denieth men two things: first, that 'we know not what to pray for;' secondly, that we know not 'how to pray.' For both these defects we have a double supply: for Christ, as He is the 'light of the world' hath directed us what to pray for by that form of prayer which He hath prescribed unto us; and the Holy Ghost, Who is compared to the 'wind that bloweth where it will,' instructeth us how to pray, for that It [335/336] stirreth up our affections, so that we pray with fervency of spirit, and utter our desires unto God with sighs than cannot be expressed. For, as a man that travelleth must have a knowledge of his way, so he cannot take a journey in hand, except he have a good wind to set him forward: to this end we are taught, not only by the wisdom of God the Father what to pray for, but from the power of His Spirit, we have those motions kindled in us whereby our prayer is made fervent.
Touching the persons whom the Apostle chargeth with this twofold ignorance, they are not the common sort of men but even the Apostles themselves, for he included himself in the words, 'We know not.' So Christ said, not the heathen men Nescitis quid petitis, but to His disciples, James and John; so that this is generally t rue of all men, that they know not what to ask kaqÕ deÐ, 'as they ought,' except God's Spirit help them.
It is true that we have a diffused knowledge of good and evil, and a desire to be partakers of the one and to be delivered from the other, (for Ignoti nulla cupido) but we must have a distinct knowledge, that is, whether the thing we desire be good or no. There is an estate of life which is contemplative, and another active, and our infirmity is such as we know not which of them to take ourselves unto, but oftentimes we think that course of life to be good for us, which albeit it be good in itself yet turns to our overthrow; so that when we desire of God to place us in any such course of life we 'speak after the manner of men,' taking it for a contented course for ourselves, whereas it falls not out so.
This will appear more plainly, both in things temporal and spiritual. The sons of Zebedee in their suit to Christ had a desire to obtain some good thing at our Saviour's hands, and they could not bethink themselves of any thing better than to be exalted to some place of honour, and therefore desired that 'one of them may sit at His right hand, and the other at His left hand:' but Christ told them 'they asked they knew not what,' for honour is not fit for all men; they were the disciples of Christ, and were to drink of the cup of affliction, and therefore willed them to be mindful of it and not to affect that which was not for their good.
[336/337] Like wise in spiritual things we may err, and hereof we have example in St. Paul, whom a man would think to have had knowledge enough so that he would not ask the thing that was not good for him; he had 'the messenger of Satan sent to buffet him,' and he prayed that it might be removed from him, which seemeth to have been a reasonable petition, but God answered him that he asked he knew not what, it was more necessary for him to be exercised with the temptations than not; and whereas he desired to be so pure as not once to be driven to evil, God told him that His 'grace was sufficient' for him, for it was His will to perfect His strength in his weakness. Therefore if we have any revelation from 'flesh and blood' that persuadeth us that this or that is good for us, we must know that all such are false; and that we must suffer ourselves to be directed by God's spirit, Who knoweth better what is good for us than we ourselves.
But to the end that we should not err the Spirit of God maketh intercession for us, and therefore we may be sure that although we know not how to pray in such sort as may please God, yet the Spirit of God Who knoweth the secrets of the counsel of God will make that prayer for us which shall be both for our good and also according to God's will.
It cannot be verified of the Holy Ghost Which is God, that He either prayeth or groaneth; but the Apostle's meaning is that He make us to make intercession, and hath that operation in our hearts that He makes us to groan. So when the Apostle saith that 'the Spirit cries, Abba, Father,' his meaning is, that 'by It we cry, Abba, Father.'
Again, the Spirit is said to make intercession for us, because It 'sheddeth abroad the love of God in our hearts.' For from the love of God proceeds this love and affection in us that we desire Him and all His blessings, and therefore make our prayer to Him to that end, which is nothing else but explicatio desiderii, so that we do not so soon desire any good thing, but we are ready to pray for it. So saith the Prophet, 'Lord, Thou knowest my desire, and my groaning is not hid from Thee.'
Likewise, when our desire is delayed, so that we obtain not the thing we would have, then we are cast into sorrow, which is wrought in us by the Spirit Which is in us, and by prayer; for it is the Spirit of God Which kindleth this fervency of [337/338] desire in prayer, as Augustine, saith Tepida est omnis oratio, quam non prævenit inspiratio, 'Every prayer is lukewarm which is not prevented with inspiration.'
The first thing that the Spirit of God works in us is, that He inclineth our hearts to pray to God for the good which we lack, which is a thing not on our own power; and therefore David thanks God, 'that he found in his heart to pray;' for when we would settle ourselves to pray, nihil tam longe abest a nobis quam orare ut decet,' there is nothing so far from us as to pray as we ought.'
Now being thus untoward in ourselves, the Spirit of God comes and helps our infirmity, and as the Psalmist saith, He opens our hearts to pray. By this means it comes to pass, that a man having his affection cold shall on a sudden feel in himself a desire to pray, and shall say, Domine, paratum est cor meum, 'O Lord, my heart is ready.'
Secondly, whereas the Lord saith, 'Open thy mouth and I will fill it,' we find this infirmity in ourselves, that when we have a heart to pray yet we cannot open our mouths, and therefore David saith, 'Open Thou my lips;' and so must we sue to Christ that He will give us words to speak, for God hath a key both to our tongue and will.
Thirdly, having begun to pray, that falls out many times which David complains of, Cor meaum dereliquit me. Our heart will be gone, and our mind will be wandering abroad, nor regarding what our tongue speaks.
It falls out often, that as Abraham had his sacrifice ready, he was no sooner gone from it but the fowls of the air did light upon it. So while we offer up to God 'the calves of our lips,' and our course is past, it comes to pass through our watonness many foul thoughts be got upon our sacrifice and despoil it; and the remedy that the Spirit of God affords us against this infirmity is, that It calls us home and tells us we are kneeling before the Majesty of God, and therefore ought to take heed what we speak in His presence. Therefore Bernard, to keep his mind in the meditation of God, when he would pray began thus, 'Let God arise, and let all His enemies be scattered; and Augustine to the same purpose began thus, 'Save me, O God, for the waters overflow.'
Fourthly, though we have our meditation still on God, yet [338/339] we shall find in ourselves that our spirits are dull and heavy, and have no manner of vigour to help our infirmity; herein the Spirit helps and puts these meditations in our hearts, whereby It kindleth, as the Prophet saith, a fire burning within us; so that God shall be fain to say to us as He did to Moses, Dimitte Me, 'Let me alone.'
Fifthly, albeit we pray but faintly and have not that supply of fervency that is required in prayer, yet we have comfort that every when we most faint in prayer there are of God's saints that pray for us with all instancy, by which it comes to pass that being all but one body their prayers tend to our good as well as their own, for the faithful howsoever they be many and dispersed into divers corners of the world yet they are but one body; and as they are the members of one body, so they pray not privately for themselves but for the whole body of the Church; so that the weakness of one member is supplied by the fervent and earnest prayer of the other. Therefore when the Apostle saith,' The Spirit maketh intercession for us' gemitibus inenarrabilibus, Augustine asketh, What groanings are these? are they thine or mine? No, they are the groanings of the Church, sometime in me, sometime in thee. And therefore Samuel, to shew that the ministers of God do the people no less good when they pray for them that when they teach them, said, 'God forbid I should cease to pray for you, and so sin against God;' for he was a help to them not only in preaching to them, but in offering burnt offerings for them. Therefore the people pray to Esay, 'Lift thou up thy prayer for us,' for as the offering of the minister is to put the people in mind, so they are God's remembrancers; they are angels as well ascending upward by their prayer in the behalf of the people, as descending to teach them the will of God.
But if the spirit that quails in us do quail also in the whole Church, yet we have a supply from the tears which our Head, Christ, shed on His Church, and from 'the strong cries,' which He uttered to God His Father 'in the days of His flesh,' by which He ceaseth not to make request to God still for us; so that albeit the hardness of our heart be such as we cannot pray for ourselves nor the Church for us, yet we may say, Conqueror Tibi, Domini, lachrymis Jesu Christi.
[339/340] Lastly, because we cannot pray kaqÕ deÐ, we have two helps also in that behalf from the Spirit; first, that the Spirit teacheth us to submit our will unto God's will, because as we are men so we 'speak after the manner of men.'
This submission we learn from the example of Christ's prayer to God His Father: Transeat calix iste a Me, 'Let this cup pass from Me, yet not My will but Thy will be done.' So David qualified his desire: 'If I have found favour with the Lord, He will bring me again; but if not, let Him do what seemeth good to Himself.
Secondly, when we look back upon our prayer and see that by reason of want of fervency and zeal it is but 'smoaking flax,' then the Spirit stirreth us up to desire God that according to His promise, 'He will not quench it,' but that His grace may be sufficient for us, and that He will make perfect His strength in our weakness.
The other thing wherein the Spirit helpeth our infirmities is, that He worketh in our hearts certain groans that cannot be expressed, which is a plain opposition to drowsy and slothful prayer; for a devout prayer plus constat gemitibus quam sermonibus, it is not fine phrases and goodly sentences that commend our prayer but the fervency of the Spirit from Whom it proceeds.
It is well if we do orarer mente et spiritu, but if our prayers do draw our sighs and groanings from our hearts it is the better for them, for then it appears that our prayer is not a breath coming from the lungs but from the very depths of the heart, as the Psalmist says of his prayer, De profundis, 'Out of the deeps have I cried to Thee, O Lord.'
What the Apostle meaneth by 'groaning which cannot be expressed' is plain, for when the grief of the heart is greatest then are we least able to utter it, as appears by the Shunamite. Notwithstanding, as it was God That wakened in us the desire of good things, so though we be not able to utter them in words, yet He doth hear etiam vocem in silentio.
There are mutæ preces et tamen clamantes, such as are the silent prayers of Moses which he made in his heart to God though he expressed it not in words: to this God said, Cur clamas ad Me.
Now as Martha was loath to serve alone, and therefore would have Mary [340/341] to help her,' so the Spirit doth not pray alone, but doth sunanilamb£netai, 'bears together, or helps us,' whereby the Apostle gives us to understand, that man must have a co-operation with God's spirit. So we see the saints of God, albeit they acknowledge prayer to be the work of god's Spirit in them, forasmuch as we are not able to 'call Jesus Lord but by he Spirit of God,' yet they are not themselves idle but do add endeavour; as David, 'Lord, open Thou my lips,' so he affirms of himself, 'I have opened my lips, and drew in my breath.'
But that we may have the help of God's Spirit without which our endeavour is but vain, we must still think upon our own weakness and humble ourselves in the sight of God, as the Publican did. So the Spirit of God will rest upon us, as the Lord promiseth. For this end fasting is commended to the Church, for it hath been an use always among the faithful, 'to humble their souls with fasting.'
Secondly, as we must pray in faith, so we must also be charitably affected to our brethren, first, by forgiving them, if we will have forgiveness at the hands of our heavenly Father. Secondly, by giving them that need: this commended Cornelius; prayer, that he gave alms.
If our prayer be thus qualified, we shall have God's spirit to assist us in prayer; Whose help if we obtain and unto our prayer add a patient expectation, so that we be not in haste to obtain the thing we crave but we wait upon God's leisure, as the Prophet saith, Qui crediderit non festinabit, 'He that believeth makes not haste,' thus we shall find that the Lord will not cast out our prayer.