Easter Sunday: Praying with Mary Magdalene

"Mary Magdalene of the Tears" by Tanya Torres (2010)

In the purple light of the morning, sitting front of the empty, open tomb, Mary Magdalene weeps in the garden alone.  ‘How could they have taken my Lord? Who did this?’ She pushes herself up off the rock, wiping under her eyes with her red scarf and wrapping it more tightly around her.  Once again, she peers into the darkness of the cave and begins to climb in, knowing she won’t find her friend but hoping to sit in the place where he last rested.  The scent of myrrh and burial spices mix with the aroma of red flowers outside.

Jumping back, Mary sees two winged men in white, sitting on the platform where the body was laid.  Feeling a gentle hand grasp her elbow, she spins around to find another man behind her.

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’” (John 20:15)  She pleads frantically, wanting nothing more than to know the whereabouts of her teacher.

The man peers down, looks into her eyes, and when he says her name, she recognizes him as her friend, her savior. In a mix of laughter and sobs, the friends embrace, as the pinkness of dawn creeps across the grass and seeps into boulders’ cracks.

In the Gospel of John, from which this resurrection account is adapted, Mary’s prayer is simple.  She asks God, the gardener, about the whereabouts of Jesus’ body.  All she wants is to find and protect his body, in order to honor his life and work.

God answers Mary’s prayer, but not as she expects.  He doesn’t give her what she asks for, but something better.

He Qi's "He Is Risen"

Often our prayers are like Mary’s.  Though we ask for one thing, God surprises us with another.  This doesn’t mean that God isn’t answering our prayers.  Rather, God’s answers are better than ones we could ever imagine for ourselves.

After she meets the resurrected Jesus, Mary runs into the city to tell the apostles.  I imagine her running with a lightness in her chest, sniffing back happy tears, and praying a prayer like this one:

I asked God for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn to obey.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise
I asked for power, that I might have praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given real life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hope for;
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among, all men, most richly blessed.

–A prayer found in the pocket of a dead Confederate soldier

Happy Easter!

Holy Saturday: Praying with the Apostles

Holy Saturday is a day of waiting and anxiety.  I imagine the apostles holed up in a small room in Jerusalem, waiting for the Roman soldiers to come arrest them.  The authorities have already crucified Jesus, and the apostles expect that they are next.  Waiting for their deaths, many of them doubt the promise that Jesus made to them:  that he would rise on the third day.  They do not trust in God’s promise, and wish that God would save them immediately rather than act on his own timeline.

Like the apostles, who awaited Jesus’ resurrection, we are eager for “resurrections” in our own lives.  Some of us can’t wait for the school year to end.  Others of us long for a significant relationship to improve.  We all look to the future in anticipation, often overlooking the goodness that already exists in our lives. Our elaborate goals and rosy visions for the future easily prevent us from recognizing the important but ordinary moments that happen in the university cafeteria, on the subway, or in the bathroom while brushing teeth with roommates.

We and the apostles must learn to accept God’s timeline.  Waiting for our own “third days” is often difficult, but that struggle allows us grow in what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin calls “patient trust.”

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are all, quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
without delay.
We should like to skip
the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown,
something new,
and yet it is the law of all progress
that is made by passing through
some stages of instability-
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually –
let them grow,
let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit scientist and mystic

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.


Good Friday: Praying with Peter

Today, I think of the apostle Peter, who in the early morning of Good Friday denied Jesus three times.  After Jesus was arrested, numerous people came to him, asking if he knew Jesus.

 69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. 70 But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. 71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” 73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” 74 Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26: 69-75)

I imagine Peter’s eyes widen in fear as he turns, looking for the source of the rooster’s wail.  He stumbles away from group and rushes behind a deserted corner, where he slumps to the ground.  His prayer is a simple one: Oh Lord, what have I done?   Guilt overwhelms him and he wonders, ‘How could I have betrayed the one I love most? The one who put his trust in me?  In his time of need I abandoned him…’

Through the rest of the day, Peter watches from afar, as Jesus is beaten, mocked, burdened with a heavy cross, and hung up high to die with nails in his hands.  He sinks deeper and deeper into depression, replaying his betrayal in his mind.  The bitter eyes of the servant girl bore into his, as he jumps back in defense: ‘I do not know the man!’

But Peter’s guilt doesn’t relieve Jesus’ suffering.

It may have helped Peter to hear the following prayer, written by St. Francis de Sales.

 Stop worrying.
Whatever it is that you must do
to follow the path that God has shown you
do to the best of your ability.
And when you have done it
move on to the next thing.
Don’t keep rerunning it in your mind
trying to decide
whether your efforts were too little
or too much,
whether it was a great deed or a small one,
whether you might have done better.
If it wasn’t sinful and
you were trying to do the will of God,
it is enough.
Don’t worry. Move on.
Simply.
Calmly.
Peacefully.
Follow the path the Lord shows you
free of anxiety.
Otherwise
your anxiety will undermine
your efforts to grow.
If you do fail,
don’t let anxiety
overcome you,
but admit your failure,
quietly, humbly,
and in God’s presence.
Then get on with following the path
that God will continue to show you.
– St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, journalists, and educators

Peter made a mistake by betraying Jesus, but his worrying won’t do anything to change that.  Like Peter, we often need to be reminded of the meaningless of our worrying.  Despite Peter’s missteps, Jesus still chose him to lead his Church, to be the first pope.  And despite our own mistakes, God still manages to work through us, to make good out of our sinful lives.

I’ll end with the following quote, which is often referenced by the Jesuits:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

Holy Thursday: Praying with Jesus

Today, Catholics move into the most prayerful and solemn time of the Church year—the Triduum, which is made up of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.  These days prepare us for the highest Christian holiday, Easter Sunday, which celebrates Jesus’ resurrection from the dead after his crucifixion.

For each day of the Triduum, I will post a prayer that speaks to that day’s particular mood and the experiences of a Biblical character who plays an important role in the day’s events.

Ignatian prayer asks us to contemplate Scripture in a particular way, placing ourselves in the Biblical stories and using our imaginations to better understand the characters we encounter.  In that spirit, we will “pray along” with Jesus, Peter, the apostles, and Mary Magdalene during the next four days.

Today, we pray with Jesus.  In the three Synoptic Gospels, we get a moving account of what seems to be Jesus’ most agonizing time in prayer.  After his last supper with his apostles, Jesus brings them to the garden of Gethsemane so he can pray.  The Gospel of Mark tells us that, “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” (Mark 26: 39)

He Qis "Praying at Gethsemane"

Knowing his death is imminent, Jesus comes to prayer in utter sorrow, no doubt with many worries on his mind.  Not only does he think about the physical pain he will endure when killed (he is clearly aware of the common form of execution in first-century Roman-controlled Palestine—crucifixion), but he is also concerned for those he leaves behind—his mother, his apostles (who can’t even manage to stay awake when he asks), and the countless disciples whose lives are at risk because of their association with him.  Will the movement he began die out once he’s gone?  Has he left his followers for dead?  Will he be able to endure the pain and mockery he will face?  Countless thoughts occupy his mind, and focusing on God’s will is difficult.  Tears drip like blood from his eyes, and he begs God to take his cup—his God-given mission—from him.

To me, this is one of Jesus’ most human moments, and it gives me comfort about my own prayer life.  So often I come to prayer distracted or in worry, lacking a clear mind and an openness to the silence of God’s voice.   When I kneel down before the Blessed Sacrament in Dahlgren Chapel or the beautiful Jesus icon in Copley Crypt Chapel in Georgetown, thoughts about my next workout, a previous conversation with a friend, and the upcoming summer come to mind, and letting them go is sometimes hard.  Knowing that Jesus too had a difficult time in prayer makes me feel much better about my own prayer life.  Rather than leaving the chapel feeling guilty for not getting through the Daily Examen (a common Jesuit prayer) or for speeding through my Hail Marys, I can feel solace, conscious that Jesus too struggled when talking to God or reciting the Psalms.

The end of Jesus’ prayer also has something to teach us.  After questioning God and asking for the cup to be taken away, he submits to God, accepting his will.  Immediately after his prayer, he is betrayed by Judas and arrested.  But Jesus is calm throughout the next and last 24 hours of his life.  He is generous and kind despite the horrible treatment he receives.  To me, this signals that Jesus’ prayer was “successful,” if prayer can ever be considered successful.  He must have received some solace from God, despite his distractions and initial distrust.  Jesus worked though his troubled thoughts, persevered in his prayer, and ultimately came out stronger and with a clearer perspective.  We too must strive for the same.

When I was on a 3-day, silent Ignatian Retreat a few weekends back, I was exposed to the following prayer, which perfectly expresses the mixture of emotions that often accompany us in prayer.  Jesus may have uttered a similar prayer to his father in the garden.

It would be easier for me to pray if I were clear

O Eternal One, 

It would be easier for me to pray 

if I were clear 

and of a single mind and a pure heart;
if I could be done hiding from myself 

and from you, even in my prayers.
 
But, I am who I am, 

mixture of motives and excuses, 

blur of memories, 

quiver of hopes, 

knot of fear, 

tangle of confusion, 

and restless with love, 

for love.
 
I wander somewhere between

gratitude and grievance, 

wonder and routine,
high resolve and undone dreams, 

generous impulses and unpaid bills.
 
Come, find me, Lord. 

Be with me exactly as I am. 

Help me find me, Lord. 

Help me accept what I am, 

so I can begin to be yours.
 
Make of me something small enough to snuggle, 

young enough to question,
simple enough to giggle, 

old enough to forget, 

foolish enough to act for peace; 

skeptical enough to doubt 
the sufficiency of anything but you,
and attentive enough to listen 

as you call me out of the tomb of my timidity 

into the chancy glory of my possibilities 

and the power of your presence.

Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace

May this prayer help us when we struggle in our own Gethsemanes.