Read Romans 8:18-30.

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. (Romans 8:26)

Is your prayer a long discourse in which you explain to God all the things that you want, or is it a two-way conversation with a friend? Is your mind at work, thinking about your needs and the needs of others, or is it an exercise of will, in which there are no clear chains of reason but you love God and trust him and seek his will? Is your prayer subject to many distractions and diversions, or are you swept away in love? Do you direct the topic under consideration, or does God lead the conversation? Is your imagination active, presenting you many images and thoughts, or is there solitude and silence and peace? Or a fire of love?

The prayer characteristic of this fourth league, or mansions, may be called prayer of the Spirit, because the Spirit prays with sighs too deep for words in those who practice this prayer. The soul no longer knows what to pray for—God is too wise and loving and mighty to need our instruction. Instead, the Spirit takes the lead, breathing into the will. In this prayer, self-will is quiet. Instead, there are desires—sighs—for knowing God, for a thousand tongues to sing his praise, for the conquering of self for the sake of God’s glory, for the salvation of the world.

Those who practice this prayer are no longer in control of prayer time. Prayer is something that happens to them. They observe. They listen. They sit quietly in God’s presence. They experience prayer. They may experience ecstatic love or cloudy confusion or bitter sorrow or intense pain of longing for God. God’s breathing into the will is characteristic of this prayer, but as it progresses, he may quiet the mind, or still the senses, or entirely sweep away the one who practices this prayer.

There are several other names that would be suitable for this prayer[1]:

  • Concealment: because God hides in the secret recesses of the heart of those who practice this prayer, to keep them from becoming proud
    • They who are most humbled are most securely in this hidden place
    • And yet, although God continues to hide himself, he starts to reveal himself through his actions within and the gifts he leaves behind
  • Abstinence: because those who practice this prayer must abstain from sin and impurity, and from much thought and reasoning, and even from human loves and legitimate consolations from creatures—all that would rob them of loving attentiveness to God
  • Consent: because they consent to all God’s wishes and vanquish contradiction and rebellion within themselves
  • Recollection: because they re-collect their scattered thoughts and desires and center them on God
  • Listening: because in this prayer they shut the door to the rest of the world, and to their own thoughts and desires, and attend to God in love as though listening intently for his voice or action within
  • Drawing near: because through this prayer they approach God and God receives them and grants them favors
  • Enkindling: because the torches of their hearts are lit by the love of God
  • Attraction: because their hearts, emptied of worldly things, attract God to occupy them and supply their needs
  • Adoption: because they subject themselves to God as a child and God cares for them as Father

In the end, all one can do is prepare for prayer of the Spirit, not practice it—it is God who finally shuts the door to the world, who mutes the mind, who silences the senses, who breathes into the spirit, who is present with us. And yet there is a preparation for this prayer that we can practice. We can do whatever we can do to consent to God, to close the door to the world, to empty our hearts of foreign loves, to enkindle love of God, to wait in the city of peace for the Holy Spirit. God will not hide himself forever from those who seek him.

[1] Adapted from Osuna, The Third Spiritual Alphabet, Paulist Press, 1981, pp. 165-167.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and