The Differing Depths of Prayer
Anyone with a regular prayer life can attest to the great variation from one prayer time to the next. Some days, you’re trudging through Scripture like a knee-high river while other days you are elevated beyond the text and find yourself to be counted among the crowd of Jesus’ first-century disciples. Of course, given the chaos of life, the former is much more familiar than the latter, but it is the deep experience with Christ that causes a desire to return to well up within us. The difference from one prayer time to the next has often baffled me – especially when I ardently try to have a profound experience, but am unable to go beyond simple meditation.
About eight months ago, a confessor recommended that I read the Passion narrative from each Gospel, moving from one to the next and then repeating the cycle. I followed his advice for several months and began to discover analogies and nuances throughout; once I became intimately familiar with the events portrayed in the Gospels, my imagination was no longer focused on the verse-to-verse occurrences and began filling in details not mentioned in the story. Did St. Peter know Malchus before he cut off his ear? Was Pilate’s fear a superstition and, if so, was he more afraid of Caesar than the son of a God? Why is Peter seen as such a hot/cold figure in the Gospel of John?
Naturally, some days during this time of meditating on the passion bore more tangible spiritual fruit than others and it was during one of the drier days that I read the following verses from Mark 14:
Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray. He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.” He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him.
People certainly experience Christ in different ways and at different depths. Something that can be drawn from this passage are the various levels into which God draws us.
- Christ’s disciples. These followers are brought to the garden after having just celebrated passover with the Son of God. It is a communal and public experience in which true intimacy might be rare. Many of the faithful find themselves here throughout the day – perhaps unable to enter into a formal prayer time, though small prayers and sacrifices are made.
- Peter, James and John. These men were selected in this situation to separate from the other group so that their friendship with the Lord might be relied upon in the difficult hour. Likewise, when we present ourselves to God in a time set aside for prayer, He often calls us out of the communal mindset and we find him on a more personal level; presenting HimRejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 4:4-7 with thanks and petitions. The Lord gives consolation and a deep peace to those disposed to receiving it.
- Christ, alone. Contemplation is a profound mystery of Catholic spirituality in which the beloved is lifted beyond themselves in such a way that the self is forgotten and Christ is all that remains. A person praying may only receive a moment from God on this level, but it is profound, nonetheless; at other times, this contemplation may last and the soul beholds Christ in such depth that the environment, time, and just about everything else is forgotten.
Of course, Peter, James and John didn’t simply follow Jesus – they were invited. Many times, a person will become frustrated because they are unable to return to a certain level of deep prayer they experienced in the past. This happens either because of distraction (or willingness to indulge in distraction) or that God desires your perseverance in prayer, which is a virtue that would atrophy if the person levitated during every meditation – returning to prayer would be easy. Since God’s hand is behind any honest prayer experience, we must trust him with the result. While a simple study of Scripture may not be what we want, it is what God wants for us, today. We should be happier to pray as we are led by the Holy Spirit than to pray as we want.