Several years ago I received an email that literally stopped my breath. A man who had been for many years an intellectual and faith mentor to me, whom I thoroughly trusted and with whom I had developed a life-giving friendship, had killed both his wife and himself in a murder-suicide. The news left me gasping for air, paralysed in terms of how to understand and accept this, as well as how to pray in the face of it.
I had neither words of explanation nor words for prayer. My heart and my head were like two water pumps working a dry well, useless and frustrated. Whatever consolation I had was drawn from an assurance from persons who knew him more intimately that there had been major signs of mental deterioration in the time leading up to this horrible event, and they were morally certain that this was the result of an organic dysfunction in his brain, not an indication of his person. And yet … how does one pray in a situation like this? There aren’t any words.
We have all experienced situations like this: the tragic death of someone we love by murder, suicide, overdose or accident. Or the exasperation and helplessness we feel in the face of the many seemingly senseless events we see daily in our world: terrorists killing thousands of innocent people; natural disasters leaving countless persons dead or homeless; mass killings by deranged individuals in New York, Paris, Las Vegas, Florida, San Bernardino and Sandy Hook, among other places; and millions of refugees having to flee their homelands because of war or poverty.
And we all we know people who have received terminal sentences in medical clinics and had to face what seems an unfair death: young children whose lives are just starting and who shouldn’t be asked at so tender an age to have to process mortality, and young mothers dying whose children still desperately need them.
In the face of these things, we aren’t just exasperated by the senselessness of the situation, we struggle too to find both heart and words with which to pray. How do we pray when we are paralysed by senselessness and tragedy? How do we pray when we no longer have the heart for it?
St Paul tells us that, when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit in groans too deep for words prays through us. What an extraordinary text! Paul tells us that when we can still find the words with which to pray, this is not our deepest prayer.
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