Groaning as a Spiritual Practice

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM  October 19, 2019

What’s in a name? There are countless names for God, however we might choose to call the Holy One who lives and moves and breathes in us, between us, among us, around us.  inaideofpotteryreducedsizecopy 2

In Fragments of Your Ancient Name, Joyce Rupp offers 365 names of God culled from the world’s spiritual traditions and treasuries: the Psalms, Sufi saints, Hindu poets, Native American rituals, contemporary writers, the Christian gospels. Each name invites us to discover a new dimension of the Holy One.

When Richard Rohr was in hermitage in Arizona during Lent 2006, he had such a sense of the Sacred Presence that he was led to compose a Litany of the Holy Spirit to awaken and strengthen the presence of that same spirit in us. We can pray with these fresh and creative names such as Warmer of Hearts, Space Between Everything, Filled Emptiness, Inner Anointing, Deepest Level of Our Longing.sandwithhand copy

On another level, we know that it’s beyond our power to ever fully name God. In the Jewish tradition, the name for God—Yahweh—was never actually spoken aloud. That sacred name was breathed. Its correct pronunciation imitates our own breath, our inhaling and exhaling, so that every time we breathe, we are speaking the name of God.

Lately, especially on watching or listening to both national and global news, I’ve found myself doing a lot of groaning, either inwardly or aloud. It’s an expression of my knowing that sometimes there are simply no words that can adequately express the heaviness, the anguish, the collective ache and longing of our world. Perhaps this is why I sat up and noticed when I read a particular Spiritual Practice of the Day from Spirituality and Practice recently. This one was embodied in a quote from Muhammad found in Merton and Sufism by Gray Henry and Rob Baker:

The Prophet said, “Let him groan, for groaning is one of the names of God in which the sick man may find relief.”

Groaning is one of the names of God.

We can imagine Hannah, distraught at her barrenness, soundlessly moving her lips and pouring out her grief in groaning, uttering the name of the Holy One. (1 Samuel 9-19)

We can imagine Jesus, hearing the news of the death of his dear friend, Lazarus, being visibly troubled, weeping, saying name of the Holy One. (John 11:33-35)

We can imagine all creation praying, as St. Paul (Romans Chapter 8) tells us, because it’s “groaning in labor pains even until now.” (8:22) And how consoling that, when we don’t even have the words to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings (8:26). Yes, when we’re so broken or bereft or weary that words escape us, the Spirit “does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.” (8:26, Message Bible translation).

These days, I hear myself groaning every time an image of the Kurdish people, scrambling in terror to find a safe and welcoming space, flashes on the news. Perhaps we may be groaning and praying the name of the Holy when we face irreversible losses: the death of a long-time partner or mentor; a cherished friendship that is eroding; a missed job opportunity we wanted so badly we could almost taste it; the fears we hold for our children, their safety, their well-being, their future; all those things over which we have no control but which can shake us awake at night in terror.Starsinsky copy

So may we notice and pay attention to our groaning, which reveals the deepest longings and wordless aches of our hearts. And when we groan, may we know the Holy One is so very near, praying always in us and through us. Always.


Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If any experience, situation, or concern is an ache in your heart, name it.
Hold that ache and sit with it for a bit.
Ask for wisdom from the Holy One who aches with you.
Groan your prayer.

Your prayers for all who are part of a guided retreat I’m offering at Villa St. Joseph in Rockville Centre, NY, October 21-25, are gratefully received. Thank you, and know that we will be remembering you in prayer during these days.

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4 thoughts on “Groaning as a Spiritual Practice”

  1. Your “groaning” meditation was exactly what I need at this time in my life. Illness, several hospital and rehab stays, memory loss, all-night coughing spells, etc. had me groaning a lot, but I never thought of this experience as one of God. Now, when I catch myself groaning, I will know that I’m really in tune with the living God as I groan God’s name.

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