One of the parts of the Mass in which the Church gives her priests autonomy over word choice is the introduction to the Prayers of the Faithful. There are many fine ways to direct the faithful to prayer, but one that I have heard in several places and found particularly striking is, “Let us pray to God for what is needed.”
If we are in the habit of praying, chances are we know in a profound way that we are needy creatures. But can we know what we really need? St. Thomas considers this very concern in his commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He calls prayer of petition nothing other than the expression to God of our desires (desideriorum explicatio). As one Dominican, Giles Emery, puts it, “To know what is necessary to ask, is to know what is necessary to desire.”
St. Thomas thought that we could have a general knowledge of those things to desire and for which to ask by calling to mind the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. After all, it is a good thing to desire the accomplishment of God’s will, or a worldly good to sustain one’s life (to be given one’s “daily bread”), or to be spared temptations. But the devil is found in the details, as it were. For instance, you may desire to further God’s Kingdom as a missionary in Africa, while his will is actually that you further it as a good father or mother in Altoona. You may believe that a certain temporal good will allow you to be a better Christian, but, as St. Thomas is quick to warn, “many [have] perished on account of riches.” You may wish fervently to avoid some temptation, but perhaps God desires to use this temptation as a “thorn in the flesh” so that, like St. Paul, you may avoid prideful boasting in anything save the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 12:7).
By ourselves, we do not know what we ought to desire in the concrete particularities of life, and so neither do we know for what we should ask God. This is what St. Thomas calls the weakness (infirmitas) of life. Each of us, due to the effects of original sin and our own personal sins and errors, can feel like a vessel on the sea amidst a dense, enveloping fog. We struggle to discern whether we are close to port or off our charted course.
To the Romans, St. Paul gave this assurance: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (Rom. 8:26). St. Thomas explains that the Holy Spirit cannot intercede for us as if he were an inferior, for he is true God. Rather, “the Holy Spirit makes us pray, insofar as he causes right desires in us.” Like the beacon of a lighthouse to a distressed ship, the Holy Spirit sends forth the charity of God into our hearts in order to dispel the darkness and enable us to see how to pray for what is truly needed here and now.
The Lord’s Prayer teaches us all how to pray to our Heavenly Father in a general way. The Spirit, whom the Father and the Son send into the world as Advocate, desires to teach each of us how to desire and to ask for what is needed in our particular parishes, communities, families, and lives. If we are docile to the Spirit, his gift to us will be the conformity of our desires to the will of God, whereby they become acceptable and efficacious.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people. Enkindle in us the fire of your divine love. Send forth the divine radiance of your light, for in this way alone can we ask with daring confidence for what we desire, and desire what we truly need, having been made wise and fit to enjoy your heavenly consolations. Amen.