We might think that we inform God, who is apart from us, of our desires. In fact, God is already with us, as Paul affirms: “the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom 8:9). In the second reading for today, Romans 8:26-27, Paul speaks of the way that the Holy Spirit aids us in discerning our desires before the Father.
Paul teaches “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” (Rom 8:26).
We might say that our “weakness” is the confusion about what we actually desire. The Spirit helps us understand our deepest desires. St. Thomas Aquinas reflects, ““In the present life in which we are still subject to weakness the ‘Spirit helps our infirmity,’ even though He does not take it away entirely” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, 687).
We are often not exactly sure of what we want. Job presents the concern of the just person who experiences the uncertainty of his or her desires: “Why does God surround with darkness the man whose way is hid” (Job 3:23).
We have a basic idea of what to pray for in the prayer that Jesus taught us. St. Thomas Aquinas grants: “We can know in a general way what is suitable to pray for but we cannot know this in particular” (Commentary on Romans, 690).
At times, we are convinced that what we want should be exactly what God wants. We may ask for a very good thing. Thomas reminds us that even a very good thing might not be what God actually wants for us: “We desire to perform a virtuous deed, which is to fulfill God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. It can happen that the virtuous deed does not befit this person or that person” (Commentary on Romans, 690).
Thomas offers an example. Although he had the highest respect for the contemplative life, he allows that this may not be what God wants for a particular person: “For example, the quiet of contemplation is not expedient for a person who can press onward usefully in action” (Commentary on Romans, 690). Mary Ward (1645) thought she was called to be a contemplative nun but went on to found the Sisters of Loreto, dedicated to the education of young women.
It would seem that being rid of a particular temptation or trial would certainly be God’s will but it may not be, as Thomas explains: “A person desires to be freed from a bothersome trial which, nevertheless, is for him a guardian of humility” (Commentary on Romans, 690).
Paul asked to be freed from a “thorn of the flesh” that was given to him to keep him from being elated at his revelations (2 Cor 12:7). Many of us must admit that our difficulties and challenges turn out to be blessings.
The Letter of James seems to indicate that our petitions will be answered if we press on with them: “Let him ask in faith with no doubting” (Jas 1:6).
However, Thomas reflects that we may not realize the reason why we want such a petition. James and John asked to sit closest to Jesus in the kingdom, but their motives still needed to be purified:
“We can know in general, but we cannot discern exactly the special motive; for example, whether we are asking from anger or from a zeal for justice. Hence … the petition of the sons of Zebedee was refused because, although they seemed to be asking to share the divine glory, their petition proceeded from vainglory or from elation (Mt 20:20)” (Commentary on Romans, 691).
As we consider our own lives, we recognize that only gradually did we come to understand what we really desired. The Spirit asks at a deeper level for what we truly need, as Paul states: “The Spirit Himself asks for us with unspeakable groanings” (Rom 8:26). How does the Spirit “ask for us”?
St. Thomas offers an important answer by saying that the Spirit produces love in us, from which are best desires rise: “The Holy Spirit makes us ask inasmuch as He causes right desires in us, because to ask is to make desires know. Now right desires arise from the ardor of love, which He produces in us: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5)” (Commentary on Romans, 693).
The Spirit gives direction to the desires of our hearts: “But with the Holy Spirit directing and inciting our heart, our desires cannot but be profitable to us: ‘I am the Lord who teaches you to profit’ (Isa 48:17).”
Paul speaks of the Spirit asking with groanings, that is, from the deepest level of our desires, which we come to understand better through seeking them. Thomas explains:
“But when we desire something strongly and pray for it longingly, we suffer its delay with pain and groanings; therefore, he adds, with ‘groanings,’ which He causes in our heart, inasmuch as He inspires us to desire heavenly things that are postponed for the soul. These are the moanings of the dove, which the Holy Spirit causes in us” (Commentary on Romans, 693).
At times, we cannot articulate what we actually desire although we intuit those desires: “They are unspeakable, wither because they concern an indescribable thing … or because those movements of the heart cannot be sufficiently described, inasmuch as they proceed from the Holy Spirit” (Commentary on Romans, 693).
Paul speaks of the Spirit as the one “who searches the hearts,” not that God doesn’t know our hearts. Thomas reflects “God is said to search hearts, not as though He investigates the secrets of the heart, but because He knows clearly the hidden things of the heart” (Commentary on Romans, 694). These “secrets” may even be secret to us.
Paul announces: “God knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because He intercedes for the holy ones according to God's will” (Rom 8:27). Slowly, our desires come closer to what God wants for us.
God knows and searches “the intention of the Spirit,” which Thomas explains is “what He makes us to desire” (Rom 8:27).
“The desires which the Holy Spirit causes in the holy ones are accepted by God, ‘because He asks for the holy ones, that is, He makes them ask ‘according to God, for things pleasing to God… As an example of this the Lord said to the Father, ‘not as I will, but as You will’ (Mt 26:39)” (Commentary on Romans, 694).
Even Jesus accepted the desires of the Father, even when it was difficult. Overall, God’s will is for our good and for our happiness, even when we don’t appreciate it at first.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.,
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Romans are taken from the translation begun by Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. and edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón. The translation was published by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, Lander, Wyoming, in 2012, pp. 227-230.