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