A reflection on the readings for Sunday, July 23, 2023 — The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

I had one of the most incredible meals of my life on a nondescript weekday afternoon while in graduate school in Rome. A lay former classmate of mine had received a restaurant recommendation from a police officer at his gym, so I made a trip across the city to meet and catch up. We arrived at the spot, which could just as easily have been a bicycle shop or shoe repair store, with no exterior indication that food was served inside. We walked in, and while I will offer no speculation as to the ownership of this establishment, there was a map of Sicily and various pictures of older men in suits lining the walls. After being greeted suspiciously, we explained how we had happened upon the establishment and were seated. The woman who served us offered no menus and asked no questions save one, “Would you like more or less food?” We naturally responded with the former and waited. The meal began with the woman bringing out an octopus. Not deep-fried calamari rings. Not a beautifully curated dish laid out over greens. A small octopus. On a plate. It was delicious, as was the rest of the meal prepared for us and everyone else in that restaurant that day.

We could have made requests. We could have gone to a restaurant, looked at a menu, and made our pick. But at the end of the day, the people who cooked this meal knew what was fresh, what they prepared well, and how items paired together. They could determine what I would enjoy far better than I could have myself. It is not that the act of ordering food would have negatively impacted the experience, but my desires at the moment overriding her choices for me would have.

For the second week in a row, we hear Paul use the term groaning to describe the spiritual life. Last weekend the groans came from us; they were groans of anticipation. Groans compared to labor pains issuing from a creation that awaits its redemption. It is not difficult for most of us to at least understand how this relates to our prayer lives. Prayer is most effective not when it is seen as a shopping list given to God for completion but when we approach it as an offering of the deepest, often inexpressible, contents of our hearts. Prayer should be raw and honest, resulting from a deep yearning beyond words. There is nothing wrong with approaching God with our desires and petitions if those requests are undergirded with the wish that his will be done. Tell God what you want but remember that, like the waitress in the Sicilian restaurant, he will provide you with what he knows you need. This is not always easy to do, but it is easy to recognize as something we should do.

Paul’s second use of στεναγμοῖς or groaning is slightly different. In today’s reading, it seems that it is not creation calling out but the Spirit speaking through us to the Father.

The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.

— Romans 8:26

We are still speaking about prayer, but also of God’s response, or more specifically, the response of the Holy Spirit through our prayer. In this case, Paul offers us a related but distinct point. God’s answer to our prayer is often inexpressible, wordless.

In our era, as a Church, we place tremendous value on clarity and certainty. The world is confusing and filled with forces that cast seeds of doubt. It is perfectly natural to want something concrete, something steady, a rock at which we can moor the ship of our souls. Our faith does play this role; we can have confidence in God’s consistency and faithfulness. In the community of believers, the Church, he has provided us with something we can depend upon unfailingly as a source of his grace and guidance. Personal prayer also is consistent and dependable in that we know God responds to the cry of his children. However, the content of God’s response in our prayer requires more nuance. The inexpressible groaning of the Spirit assures that God is at work, but it can be more challenging to determine what precisely the Spirit is saying. It is easy to fall into the trap of attributing our misplaced certainty in our own opinions, thoughts, and desired courses of action to the Spirit’s groaning–“I want x to happen because I believe y. I prayed, and the Spirit moved; therefore, God affirms my belief in y and my desire to do x.” This can lead to a dangerously misplaced certainty in our own personal reasoning. It takes our confidence in our own thought processes and attributes to them divine approbation. The prayer of the Spirit is clear to the Father but not always to us.

And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.

— Romans 8:27

Paul himself, in his description of the Spirit’s work in the Church, offers the proper way forward. Paul provides numerous lists of charisms within the Body of Christ throughout his letters. Several of these charisms could be described as direct actions of the Holy Spirit through a believer’s prayer, charisms like prophecy, words of wisdom, and tongues. These gifts are indeed the work of God and fruits of the Holy Spirit’s action, but, crucially, they are not self-interpreting. Twice in his first letter to the Corinthians, in chapter twelve, and again in chapter fourteen, Paul stresses the importance of the charism of interpretation. Hearing the inexpressible groaning of the Spirit is a gift, but a gift that requires interaction with a second unique charism to provide concrete content. In this way, we are protected against misinterpreting God’s actions in our hearts in the manner described earlier. The Spirit works in the individual believer’s heart, but the discernment of precisely what the Spirit’s groans mean requires the assembled Body of Christ.

This point is further made in today’s gospel, where Christ elaborates upon his use of parables rather than lists or moral codes to proclaim the Kingdom. Parables can have ambiguous meanings and require interpretation; they are not ideal teaching tools if clarity and certainty are the teacher’s primary objectives. What they do provide (among other things) is protection against arrogance and isolated discernment. A parable demands careful reading and the interconnected interpretation of multiple people with different gifts. A parable forces us to recognize that God is speaking through us in inexpressible groanings that cannot be co-opted to fit our own desired outcome at any given moment. The parable Christ offers today itself reinforces this point. We can know with certainty that in the end, Christ will gather up his children and separate the good from the evil. In this present age, however, the seeds sown by the Spirit and the seeds sown by the evil one are mixed in one field. This results in confusion, uncertainty, and doubt in our lives and world. It can be tempting to speak with certainty about judgment now, but the role of the judge who separates good from evil belongs to Christ alone, and final judgment comes only at the end of the age. We are left with the imprecise duty of discerning the Spirit’s inexpressible groans as we move through a murky world.

This may seem like an inefficient way to build the Kingdom. At first glance, certainty and clarity appear more effective than wordless movements within the soul. In reality, the inexpressible groaning of the Spirit is infinitely more fitting. Our God chooses to speak through us in a way that protects us from our arrogance and our desire to co-opt his Word to suit our vision. He leaves us with an assurance of his presence, the gifts to follow his guidance not as individuals but as a Church, and the promise of an eternal banquet that will wildly exceed anything we could ask for ourselves.

Image: Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash 

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Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.

You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.

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