Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 8:26-27 – July 9, 2012)
Stenagmoi alaletoi is the Greek for what is here rendered as “sighs to deep for words.” Another translation might be “groanings not to be uttered.” Just a few verses before, Paul has used the root verb to describe the whole of creation as “groaning in labor pains” and specifically Christians who “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (vv. 22-23) ~ This is not simply a sigh (I think that translation understates Paul’s meaning), this is a troubled lament, an anxious longing, a deeply distraught sense of inexpressible misery. And it is here in the deepest recess of human sadness and frustration that we encounter God; it is here where God joins us in the struggle, where humankind no longer wrestles with God but God joins us in our wrestling with existence, with our weaknesses, and aids us in overcoming them; the Spirit intercedes joining, and perhaps giving voice to, our inarticulate groanings. ~ When we are unable to voice our prayers, God nonetheless understands. Once, when I was in seminary, I asked that prayers be offered at Evensong for the repose of the soul of friend who had just passed away. The person leading the prayer service did not know me and, apparently unable to read my handwriting, identified the deceased as a “friend of Ernie Funston” (which occasioned some chuckling from friends and colleagues). On the way out of the chapel, one of my professors assured me, “Don’t worry. God has spell-check on prayers.” I think that’s Paul’s meaning here. We may only be able to offer only the incomprehensible and indistinct sobs of the deeply troubled, but God searches the heart with God’s spell-checker.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.