Year of Mercy

When you’re hurt too badly to pray, let the Spirit do the groaning

We can’t escape being injured or injuring others, but we can allow God to bring mercy to birth in us

42) Ask the Holy Spirit to groan for you when you cannot bring yourself to pray for someone who has done you an injury. — 56 Ways to Be Merciful During the Jubilee Year of Mercy

It’s a physical blow, being done a great injury by someone. A spouse walks out. An adult child cuts off contact out of anger. You lose your job suddenly and without justification. Someone spreads a terrible rumor, and friends turn away. The injury may not even be that enormous on the scale of personal disasters, but it’s real and you’re bleeding.

You feel kicked in the gut, run over by a bus. All the breath knocked out of you.

Prayer is the last thing that feels possible. Even praying for God’s mercy to take away the pain, right the wrong, seems to stick in a throat choked by tears. You might manage to mumble a “God, help me!” or stumble through a decade of the Rosary, but the words are like dust in your mouth.

In the midst of devastation, too wounded to pray the most selfish cry for God’s attention, the call to pray for our enemies falls like a sick joke. We. Can’t. Even.

It’s worse – if worse is possible – when we can’t help but feel that God is the Someone who has done us the great injury. A child dies. We receive a grim diagnosis. We lose everything we have or everyone we love in an “act of God” – a storm, a wildfire, an earthquake. How can we pray to God for mercy when we think he’s the one who afflicted us? And how can we pray for the enemy who caused us injury when God is that enemy? Like Job on his miserable dung heap, all we can manage is a groan.

Here is a great secret: Our groaning itself is prayer. The wordless wail is a deep, instinctive mark of our creatureliness, the spontaneous acknowledgment that we are mortal and vulnerable and not-God. Groaning is the most human of prayers.

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Many of the psalms are groans set to music:

“I am weary with my groaning; every night I drench my bed with tears . . .” (Psalm 6:6)

“I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” (Psalm 38:8)

And that prayer, whether we can bring ourselves to believe it or not, is heard. Throughout the Scriptures, we learn that the groaning of his people turns God’s heart to healing and restoration – even when we have done the injury to ourselves through foolishness and sin. The psalms of lament are interwoven with prayers of praise and thanksgiving:

“God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (Exodus 2:24)

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my help and my God.” (Psalm 42:11)

So go ahead and groan. Groan mightily, for mercy and healing and (if you can) for the one who did the injury. But if you still can’t even, there is a promise of greater comfort than even the psalms hold out. When we are hurt too deeply to groan, there is One who groans with and for us: the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, our Advocate. St. Paul writes:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)

Turn it over. Let it be taken up. We don’t even have to make a conscious decision to invoke the Spirit, because in Baptism and Confirmation the Spirit is already at work in us and for us. Not only in and for us, but as Paul also wrote to the Romans, in and for all of creation:

We know that the whole of creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)

Creation, every hurt and injustice reminds us, has been made subject to the futility of the Fall. Betrayal, loss, disease, disaster, death – all these great injuries are symptoms of the brokenness we bear. We are hurt, and we hurt one another, and we suffer without being able to point the finger of blame. Yet through all this, the Spirit of God is recreating us, shaping us to be fit to bear the weight of mercy and grace. This chorus of groans is the prayer of the great delivery room, and we — and our enemies — will be healed, comforted, reborn if we do not resist those birth pangs.

This week’s suggestion for practicing mercy in the Jubilee Year is a reminder to get out of the way and let the Spirit work. We don’t have to pretend the hurt does not hurt – but we are asked to remember that it hurts the one who dealt the injury, too. May God turn our groans to rejoicing, together, in the time beyond all time.

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