“Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Mark 14:38 NLT
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was deeply troubled and distressed. He told Peter, James and John, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Mark 14:32-34 NLT). Jesus had to confront the apparent and dismal failure of his ministry – he knew Judas was going to betray him. He had warned Peter, “I tell you the truth, Peter—this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny three times that you even know me” (Mark 14:30 NLT). He had told the disciples that they will desert him to fulfill the Jewish scripture as recorded in Zechariah 13:7:
“On the way, Jesus told them, “All of you will desert me. For the Scriptures say, ‘God will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” Mark 14:27 NLT
Sooner or later, each one of us will encounter a grief that will crush our soul to the point of death – failure, loss, betrayals and being abandoned are part and parcel of belonging to a human community. Richard Rohr makes the poignant observation that all of us are trying to avoid the mystery of suffering in human life, instead of learning how to face it courageously, as Jesus did. He reminds us:
“There are no perfect situations or perfect people. There is only the struggle to get there. It is Christ’s passion (patior in Latin, or the “suffering of reality”) that will save the world, when we are willing to join him in the pattern.”
The passion of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane is a dramatic demonstration that it is not a piece of cake to seek and do God’s will. There are dark and negative forces in the universe that will rise up to keep us from doing what God wants us to do. It is so easy to pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” but it can be very painful and distressing to pray, “Your will and not my will be done.” The story of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals the heart-breaking emotional struggle and suffering that we will have to grapple with when we want to do God’s will. It requires the crucifixion of our human ego.
Jesus knew he has to fulfill what the Scriptures say about him (Mark 14:48) such as Isaiah 53:3-12. At the same time, he was fully human and he was tempted to pray that the awful hour might pass him by. He asked Peter, James and John to keep watch with him. Perhaps they could have gotten away if they were able to spot Judas coming with the soldiers. But Peter, James and John fell asleep and when Jesus went to them the third time, it was too late for any escape plans. Jesus then told them, “Go ahead and sleep. Have your rest.” There is a time when there is nothing we can do except to rest in God and to watch how God’s will unfolds in our lives. It is a time when we have to truly surrender our will and put our trust in God’s faithful love.
It is important to understand and live out the Paschal Mystery of Jesus which comprises his passion, death, resurrection and glorification. This is the foundation of our Christian faith. Our flesh is weak and we are not able to keep watch and pray to overcome temptation. But if our spirits are willing, we can find rest in God through the practice of contemplative prayer.
As we rest in God, we will be able to “watch” our thoughts and feelings without judging them and reacting to them. The practice of meditation is to see how such thoughts and feelings distract and keep us from the love of God in our everyday lives. It is not trying to get rid of our negative thoughts and feelings but seeing how they are keeping us from remembering God’s love. We need to keep watch in order to pray. It is only when I am watching my thoughts and feelings that my prayers will be God centered and not self centered.
We will all encounter failure, relationship conflicts, suffering and finally death. We will be tempted to compete, to compare, to criticize, to condemn and to covet. But the Paschal Mystery of Jesus empowers us to choose co-operation, care, connection, compassion and community. The dark seasons of our life are the times when we journey with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to choose God’s will and not our will.
In our struggle to give up the treasures of our hearts – our “Isaacs” – we can remember the faith of Abraham in God as Jehovah Jireh – the Lord who provides. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac for he believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing (Romans 4:17). God does not demand that we sacrifice what we love but gave us Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb to show us the wonder of His amazing grace – God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, so that who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). God is not seeking the blind obedience of robots but the discerning faith of a lover that is rooted in His agape love.
Our human tendency is to see things as all-good or all-bad instead of recognizing that all things are both good and bad. There is a Judas and a Peter in each one of us for we all infected by greed and pride. There is evil as well as good in each one of us. Our spirits may be willing but our flesh is weak. Richard Rohr draws attention to the shadow side in us, in the church, in history and of reality itself. When we expect or demand a perfect reality we will become resentful and judgmental. It is only when we see the shadows undergirding our failures and failings as the opportunity for compassion and forgiveness, that we will become a people who are imperfectly perfect and filled with gratitude.
The wonder of contemplative prayer is that it is a simple way to practice the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane – that God’s will, and not our will be done. But it a journey into the depths of our hearts that must be rooted in the right attitude and right beliefs. It requires commitment and discipline. It involves confronting our shadows – our sinful desires, ulterior motives and hidden agendas – not with the spirit of condemnation, but with the compassion of Christ who knows how weak our flesh is.
It is in and through silence that such a prayer is born. Mother Teresa’s simple path to peace comes to mind:
The fruit of silence is PRAYER.
The fruit of prayer is FAITH.
The fruit of faith is LOVE.
The fruit of love is SERVICE.
The fruit of service is PEACE.
John Main saw meditation as the basis of civilization because ”it reveals a life of the human being as the freedom to be fully alive, which is to love, to care for others.” Through meditation we open our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit to create a healing space for our past hurts, resentments and failures so that we can become wounded healers and peacemakers. So let us keep watch of our thoughts and feelings in order to bear the fruit of true prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.