Peyton Parra is a Cohort 8 Seton Teaching Fellow serving in the South Bronx at Brilla Veritas Elementary School. Originally from Pensacola, Florida, Peyton majored in Nutrition at Auburn University. There, she was able to become involved at the Auburn Catholic Campus Ministry, where she learned about and eventually said yes to Seton Teaching Fellows. In this reflection, Peyton talks about the journey she has been on as a young Catholic student and missionary, and how she has learned to ask God for help in prayer.
“Come, Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray.” I still remember the night this one-liner became firmly etched in my mind. It was a Monday night in Auburn, the spring semester of my junior year. Every Monday night, we had adoration and afterwards, we would listen to campus ministry announcements and have a social hour. After the announcements, the leaders would ask for a volunteer to close us in prayer. On this particular Monday night, after a moment of silence, a young man volunteered to lead. He began with the Sign of the Cross, then said, “Come, Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray.”
I had recently encountered the person of Jesus Christ and Our Lord was in the process of radically transforming my heart. I didn’t have a clue what was going on in my mind or my heart, but I wasn’t afraid either. I knew without a shadow of doubt that whoever this Jesus was, I wanted more of Him. Soon enough, I was soaking in many graces, frequenting the sacraments, and forming authentic friendships. Glory to God!
In response to all of this, I began engaging in daily personal prayer for the first time. I went from asking a seemingly far-away God for occasional favors, to attempting to share my heart with Love Himself. To be honest, it felt awkward and I spent way too much time worrying if I was “saying the right thing” or “praying the right way.” I wanted to be closer to our Lord, and it seemed like prayer was the way to get there. Thanks to mentors, missionaries, and dear friends at the Catholic Student Center, I learned some basics about prayer and was exposed to many different types of prayer too. To this day, I am immensely grateful for their vulnerability in sharing their prayer with me in the beginning of my walk with Christ.
So, back to junior year, Monday night, post-adoration. After hearing, “Come, Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray,” I was stunned. As vividly as I remember that night, I don’t remember anything he prayed after that, because this opening stopped me in my tracks. For the remainder of the evening, I was pondering it, — “Come, Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray.” It flowed through my mind on repeat and I pictured the hearts of all the college students united in prayer, consumed with the fire of the Holy Spirit. I now recognize how this experience equipped me with the zeal to continue praying and learning how to pray. From this point on, I adopted this one-liner to begin my own personal prayers each day. My logic behind this was quite simple and superficial: it sounded cool, and I wanted to be cool. So I continued on in my journey with the Lord, sporting this new ‘cool’ prayer phrase.
Since then, prayer has been a journey — a beautiful, hard and life-saving journey. There have been seasons of immense consolation and times of great desolation. There have been seasons of fervent consistency and sadly, seasons of very little consistent prayer. Among the countless different prayers I’ve prayed, they have all begun with the same beloved phrase: “Come, Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray.” For the most part, this phrase has become an effortless segway to what I would share next with our Lord.
Flash forward to this fall, on mission, in the South Bronx, as a Seton Teaching Fellow. I began praying this one-liner more fervently…very fervently. You see, mission is hard. It wouldn’t be a mission if it wasn’t. And doing hard things helps me tangibly experience my own littleness and desperate need for God. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” has never been so real to me as it is while on mission. Praise God for this, because it is the truth. I cannot exist without God, I cannot love without God, and I certainly cannot pray without His supernatural grace.
In the midst of the purification and transformation of heart that mission entails, I was adding to my own suffering by trying to do things alone. I always need help (lots of it) from the Lord, but even more so on mission, where my full-time job requires radical love! In November, I hit a personal low point while on mission. I was tired, not taking care of myself well, and entered a toxic cycle of complaint, frustration, and self-pity. I found myself crushed under the weight of my own expectations and the vice of self-reliance. This self-reliance was creeping into my prayer life as well.
But through God’s mercy and grace, I entered our community’s prayer room one morning, with a tall glass of water in my hand and a heavy heart in my chest. I felt physically tired, emotionally drained, and spiritually distant. I made the sign of the cross and began my prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray.” But this time, when I prayed this phrase, I meant it with every fiber of my being. I wasn’t simply calling on the Holy Spirit to lead my prayer as usual…I was begging Him from the depths of my heart to pray in and through me, to literally take over on my behalf and do it all, because I absolutely couldn’t on my own. Then, in His own language of silence and hidden tenderness, the heaviness became bearable, day-to-day tasks became full of purpose and living in the present moment became tangible.
Soon enough, this phrase I had been mindlessly uttering became THE focal point of my prayer. “Come, Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray. Give me the words I need. Lord, You have the words I don’t have. You can see the bigger picture that I cannot. You know what I need when I’m unable to put a finger on it. Come, Holy Spirit, pray in me to the Father.” In these desperate pleas for help, the Lord is so near!
St. Paul shared his experience in his letter to the Romans. He wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
In the lens of mission, daily personal prayer is like oxygen. Without this daily sharing of my heart and receiving of divine grace, I cannot do my job; I cannot love. Without the Holy Spirit, I cannot truly pray from the heart. But in the presence of our Lord and with His guidance from the Holy Spirit, prayer is not only possible, but alive and vibrant! Prayer makes true Christian charity possible. The ability to live in Christ throughout the challenges of the day become more attainable.
It’s a reality check that I’m still weak and I still struggle to pray consistently, fervently, and humbly. The enemy very often tries to stop me from this necessary stillness with the Lord. I often get distracted and think of myself more than I allow myself to be captivated in His gaze of love. But in it all, the Holy Spirit is near and is always helping me, guiding me and encouraging me.
So here’s to praying this one-liner with fullness of heart. Here’s to leaning in and opening myself up to being led, being helped, being guided by the One who thirsts to do exactly this. Come Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray.