Thursday, July 29, 2010

Alone in Prayer

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up into the hills by himself to pray." (MATT. 14:23)

According to St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus walked upon the sea and subdued the wind that was threatening to capsize the boat of the disciples (MATT. 14:22-33), after he had fed the multitude of five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread (MATT. 14:13-21). Therefore, these "mighty acts" of the Lord are linked together both chronologically and geographically according to the evangelist. But what may link these events together on a much deeper level is the evangelist's "note" that in between the feeding of the multitudes and the walking upon the sea, Jesus first withdrew in order to pray "by himself." In fact, it appears that Jesus spent a great deal of time in this instance alone and in prayer, for "when evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves..." (14:23-24). Jesus is sustained and strengthened by prayer. The Lord prayed (and fasted) in the desert before He began His earthly ministry; He prayed during His ministry, as recorded here; and He prayed with particular intensity in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prepared to complete and fulfill His earthly ministry by voluntarily ascending the Cross. Prayer was essential to Christ.

Perhaps we need to understand this as a "great mystery," for the Lord who prayed we believe to be the eternal Son of God incarnate! In His Person are united the divine and human natures "without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation." His sinless human nature is "deified" in the Incarnation. And that same human nature was transformed "from glory to glory" during the unfolding of His life and totally "perfected" and eternally glorified - through suffering! - in the resurrection and ascension following the crucifixion. Often, we understand the practice of prayer as our "communication" with God in order to discern God's will for our lives. (We also thank God in our prayer, intercede for others, or express our distress as lamentation before God in the form of prayer).

However, communication must be seen as an inadequate term for describing Christ's experience when praying to His heavenly Father. There are no indications that Christ did not know the will of God at all times. On the contrary, His every word and deed were in direct fulfillment of the will of God: "I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me." (JN. 6:38) This is so because the Lord's "natural" human will was in full union with the will of His heavenly Father. Jesus did not waver, vacillate, or "guess" when fulfilling the will of God (as we do so painfully often). In the theological language of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the human will of Christ always followed and never resisted or opposed His divine will; both wills -the human and divine - being united in His one Person of the Son of God incarnate. Of course, Christ also thanked His heavenly Father in His prayer, interceded for others, and expressed His distress or lamentation, as in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross. Ultimately, though, we must speak of His prayer as communion with God. In a recent letter, Fr. John Breck wrote the following to me in relation to this subject of Jesus praying:

What occurred in Jesus' times of intense, more focused prayer (we can imagine that he was constantly at prayer to some degree) can't be discerned or described. His prayer was unique. Yet because our prayer in the Spirit is really "God praying to God," the same can be said with regard to Jesus' prayer: the Second Person, if you will, prays to the First Person of the Holy Trinity, a mystery we can only share in and experience insofar as we invite and allow the Spirit to pray within us. Prayer, accordingly, is essentially Trinitarian.

Whatever is human, apart from sin, is assumed by the Word of God who became man. The Lord was not a "ghost" as the frightened and amazed disciples first thought when they beheld Jesus coming to them across the water. To be human is to be in union with God - that is our "natural" state. And if prayer creates and sustains our relationship with God, then to be fully human is to pray. Since Christ was fully human, He prayed. "In the beginning," it was perfectly natural for human beings made "in the image and likeness of God" to nourish their bodies with food and drink. And it was natural for those human beings to nourish their souls through prayer. As the Last Adam, Christ perfectly exemplifies this natural state of humanity. The mysterious relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ is somehow revealed precisely here in the Lord's practice of prayer as communion with God.

I wrote recently about being too busy not to pray. We must find the time regardless of the "cost," because the only thing we cannot afford not to do is to pray. Each person must "be alone" in prayer with some kind of regularity, as the Lord was alone in prayer as recorded in the Gospels. We must make the time. Jesus would withdraw from the affairs of the world, at least temporarily, in order to strengthen - perhaps even "energize" - His human nature through the communion of prayer. Regardless of our ability or inability to fully explain Christ's prayer life as it presents itself before us in the Gospels, we know one thing for certain: we need to pray in order to be fully human.

Fr. Steven

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