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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Mysterious Prayer of Gethsemane

There are stories about great saints who struggled to pray in the face of great difficulty. This can be baffling until we try to enter into the Passion of Christ and consider the movements of His Heart before the merciful love of the Father. Until we contemplate the prayer of the Word of the Father, this struggle to pray is often deemed to be merely a stage through which we pass. Yet, in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Luke 22:35ff), the bloody sweat of the Son of God reveals this struggle as a supreme moment of Christian contemplation, a terrifying standard against which the truth of all our other prayers can be discerned. The hymn of praise learned with the Suffering Servant on the Mount of Olives is shrouded in a mystery. It is against this mystery that therapeutic approaches to prayer should be discerned. Psychological or physical tantrums are silenced before the authentic cry of heart offered by the Son of Man. His love for his disciples and devotion to the Father challenges any consumerist attitude toward the things of God. His sorrow and spiritual poverty helps us feel the appropriate shame we ought to have over any gluttonous expectation for mental relief or euphoric experience. Against the dark terror Jesus confronts in prayer, spiritual consumerism can only be seen as limiting the freedom that our conversation with the Lord requires.

The Word made flesh baptized every moment of his earthly life in this kind of prayer. Every heart beat and every breath was so filled with zeal for the Father and those the Father gave Him, divine love ever exploded in His sacred humanity with resounding silence, astonishing signs, heart-aching wonders and words of wisdom which even after two thousand years still give the world pause. Each verse of the Gospels attempts to show us His self-emptying divinity boldly hurling His prayerful humanity with the invincible force of love to the Cross. In Gethsemane we glimpse how the Son of Man availed Himself to these mysterious promptings of the Father's love, an unfathomable love that is not comfortable to our limited humanity. Unaided human reason cannot penetrate the divine passion that compelled Him into the solitude hidden mountains and secret gardens. His vigil on the Mount of Olives can only be understood as the culmination of the ongoing conversation to which He eagerly made His humanity vulnerable. If, in this culminating movement of heart, Christ sweat blood, we who have decided to follow in the footsteps of our Crucified Master should not be surprised by moments of great anguish in our own conversation with God. In the face of this mystery, we must allow the Risen Lord to give us His courage. What is revealed on the Mount of Olives helps us see why Christian prayer can mature into a beautiful surrender, a movement of love which gives glory to the Father and extends the redemptive work of the Redeemer in the world. What Christian contemplation sees with the Son of God can involve very difficult struggle, through the strength that comes from the Savior even the terrifying moments of such prayer can resolve themselves in trustful surrender: "Not my will... Yours be done." A vision of prayer that contemplates in the midst of terror and anguish is probably not a popular subject, but I think a very important one today. For further reflection on this I refer you to "Blessings that are Difficult to Receive" on Dan Burke's Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction blog.

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