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Gethsemane’s Night and the Hope of Christian Prayer

Gethsemane: Those who enter into this hidden garden of prayer with fear of the Lord and right reverence are Gathsemene iStock_000013014358Smallpermitted to overhear part of the Son's conversation with the Father in secret.  Extending the blessing He offered at the Last Supper, Christ offered perfect praise with bold confidence in the Father while cherishing everything about his human existence, especially His friends.  He was vigilant that they should not be lost, but instead that they should have life to the full.  Though the terror of that night did not spare Him extreme anxiety, an attitude of complete readiness and excessive generosity permeated the resounding silence that He offered to the Father in humble prayer.  (See Luke 22:39-46 as well as Mark 14:32-42, and Matt. 26:36-46.)
To contemplate this further, we must allow the light of the Word made flesh to help us see the mystery of humanity raised in perfect prayer. The prayerful existence of the visible image of the Invisible God is no diminish-ment of creation or humanity.  The Savior already knew with intense awareness the full depths of the struggle between good and evil in all those entrusted to Him, and by the frailty of human prayer, He had already irrevocably implicated Himself in this drama: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.

His most intimate prayer, in the context of Passover, did not seek to surmount the nobility of human aspirations or avoid those intense fears that arise from man's precarious place in a violent world.  Nor did He withdraw from or try to by-pass the depths of misery that his human nature allowed Him to drink in.  Instead, He blessed the Father with every fiber of His embodied existence and in this effort offered heart-felt petitions.  He interceded with all his strength in wrenched anguish for those He loved.  His prayer is infallible. It was through this divine movement of His human heart that we are consecrated by the truth.

The hypostatic union of humanity and divinity in the Son of God means that the Lord's Divine Will exploded with power within the freedom of His human will, His Divine Understanding constantly flashed out with blinding brilliance within the limits of His human understanding. Thus, with unceasing prayer did He make the blind see while those who thought they saw were left blind.

It is a beautiful mystery that the Fathers of the Church called theandric: what He did as God, He did humanly; what He did as man, He did divinely.   His prayer was not an effort to overcome, to annihilate or to absorb human nature by attaining some enlightened consciousness beyond consciousness.  Instead, He prayed in, through and for humanity, binding to Himself all its uncertainty, disappointment, regret and heartache.  Through the Church to whom He confided Himself in Eucharistic covenant, this same mystery is extended into the prayer of His disciples.

This awesome mystery speaks to the nature of Christian contemplation.  This is why the prayer of the Redeemer is at once a terrifying mystery and a mystery of unfathomable hope in our daily life.  With faith in Christ's beatific gaze and bloody sweat, Christians learn to behold the whole of human misery, the overwhelming cost of our redemption and, at the same time, the unbounded excessive-ness of the Father's love for each soul.

It is a piercing, disturbing and overwhelming contemplation revealed in Gethsemane and accomplished on Golgotha. If His prayer suffered the limitlessness of the Father's love in the limits of the human heart, so too our own frail efforts to trust the Father.  If the boundaries of his human reason were unremittingly plunged in the light of Divine Understanding, so too does our own contemplation baptize us in dark waters of painful tribulations and puzzling trials.  If the frail vulnerable movement of his human liberty confronted in itself with complete integrity the gentle but eternal power of Divine Freedom, we too struggle to find the courage to follow in the footsteps of our Crucified Master.  

In the prayer of Christ, the baptized are offered a cup of which each sip means a further surrender of one's desire for self-preservation, and this with the hope of salvation.  The Son of God has assumed human nature in a manner by which the gift of faith opens the depths of the human person to this new kind of existence, a trusting existence.  He not only reveals the truth against which one can renounce all those false efforts to save oneself, but He also gives the grace to offer, like He did, the unique and unrepeatable truth about one's very own self to God.   In this prayer, humanity is not left behind or surmounted: it is elevated beyond itself, above what it finds comfortable or satisfying, far above what it can manipulate or control, up into an awesome hope-filled night, a Gethsemane in which alone it can find refuge.  

What a paradox!  This brilliant night of the Mount of Olives, the same ineffable darkness that covered both Sinai and Tabor, is not dark in itself but inaccessible to the natural powers of reason, intuition and feeling.  Our own efforts are not sufficient to welcome this hidden grace.  Only an exquisite but difficult gift helps us keep this vigil.  Only prayer baptized in Christ's own silence can contemplate the Holy Trinity hidden in this radiant cloud of divine splendor. Faith alone knows, especially when it feels the moment of abandonment that the Lord felt, that this painful night is no nihilistic emptiness, but the loving in breaking of Eternal Life won for us by Christ. Those who enter Gethsemane's night taste, without knowing it, a pledge of future glory: the Eucharist of the Church lives in their hearts.

By the Eucharist, the mysterious prayer of the Lord lives in our effort to pray.  For those who engage their hearts and minds in the sacrificial banquet, the prayer of Gethsemane cannot long remain a static artifact tucked away in the back of the baptized mind.  This living reality constantly implicates the whole of humanity in the Father's merciful love in the present moment entrusted to us.  With our perseverance in faith, Christ's cry to the Father in us effects radical vulnerability and complete trust in the goodness and wisdom of the Father's plan — no matter our personal plight or the plight of those we love.  Here, the prayer of the Word made flesh is not merely an example for us to follow.  His prayer is a principle that animates our prayer – making it right and just.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at BeginningtoPray.blogspot.com

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  • LizEst

    “…making it right and just” Indeed!

    It is at Gethsemane that Christ redeems the human will once and for all, “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42) echoing, in a way, His mother’s own words, “Be it done unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38b). In His action, we also see a fulfillment of the Old Testament: “Your will is my heritage forever, the joy of my heart. I set myself to carry out your will in fullness, for ever (Psalm 119:111-112)” “The lot marked out for me is my delight: welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me! (Psalm 16:6).” Not only does Jesus redeem the human will and fulfill all righteousness but, though suffering in the very depths of His soul, He delights in this redemption because it is the will of the Father. That is the ultimate model for us, to delight in God’s will no matter what, simply because it is, actively or passively, His will, our most welcome heritage for ever.

    As an aside, for those unfamiliar with the term theandric, you can learn more about the distinctions between divine actions, theandric actions (divino-human) and materially theandric actions (humano-divine) here: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10502a.htm .

    • rjk123

      Thank you for the link. This is a new term for me. Rachel

    • rjk123

      I like your observation that Christ “redeems the human will once and for all”! Is it possible or okay to ask God to take over my will, even to take away my free will so that His will only be done? Rachel

      • LizEst

        Because it’s one of the greatest ways we image and reflect God, He never violates our free will. That would be kind of like going against His nature. So, go ahead and ask if you wish, just know that He doesn’t take over our wills. You wouldn’t be the first to ask this of Him. Many saints have done the same. Your desire to have Him do that, however, speaks volumes about wanting to be conformed to His will. God does want our wills to be conformed to His. And, He is delighted with this desire of yours and blesses your intention. Now, ask Him to help you with that and He will. Ask, seek and knock! The door shall be opened to you and you will have treasure in heaven.

        God bless you, Rachel. You are on His way.

        • Anthony_Lilles

          Thank you for this reflection to Rachel’s question.  It is insightful and true. The Lord loves to work in and through our humanity because He created it – and He loves our freedom more than we do.  Because of this, the deeper our friendship with Him, the more He is able to help us discover new dimensions of freedom of which we did not know we were capable. But He knows us better than we know ourselves – we are a mystery to ourselves, in fact.  But not to Him who made us. The pathway to holiness, to friendship with the Lord is a pathway of greater and greater life, freedom, knowledge, and love.  Your conversation with Rachel draws may attention to what St. Irenaeus says so beautifully, “The glory of God is man fully alive; the life of man is the vision of God.”

        • rjk123

          Thank you, so much. Your comment is very reassuring. Ask, seek and knock! Amen. Jesus is our treasure in Heaven! Rachel

  • Cynthia

    Thank you so much, Dr. Lilles! I printed this out so I can spend as much time in prayerful reflection as necessary to absorb all the beauty of it. I’m much indebted.

  • This is a Post I need to re-read repeatedly to absorb the Divine teaching it contains

  • Grtgrandpa-Tom

    In his farewell discourse, in Matthew 26:35 / Luke 14:38: He said to Peter, “So you could not even keep watch with me for one hour?… I have heard that this question about the “one hour” is where we get the ‘one hour’ of  Adoration of the Holy Eurcharist.

    • Anthony_Lilles

      There may be some connection with this – especially when we consider the history of Eucharistic Devotion and Holy Thursday, when after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, there is a procession to a special chapel where we keep vigil into the night remembering Jesus’ prayer on Mount Olives. A wonderful resource to explore questions like you have raise is In the Presence of the Lord: the History, Theology, and Psychology of Eucharistic Adoration co-authored by Father Groeschel – http://www.amazon.com/Presence-Our-Lord-Benedict-Groeschel/dp/0879739207/ref=pd_sim_b_4 

      • Vicki

        Also, I just read a book about St. Margaret Mary, and of course the book delves into devotion to the Sacred Heart.  Our Lord asked that she and others keep a holy hour on Thursday nights – specifically because of His Agony in the Garden and that hour wherein his apostles failed Him.

    • Yes, Grtgrandpa….the Thursday Adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  We also have another daily “Hour of Great Mercy” at 3.00 – 4.00 O’Clock which Jesus gave us through Saint Faustina Kowalska – the Secretary and Apostle of His Divine Mercy Message.  This is the Hour, when the Floodgates of Mercy are open, Jesus promised to grant whatever one’s prays for if it is in accordance with the Will of His Father.  And we, the believers, know that the Holy Spirit is with us during that Hour to inspire us on what to pray for!!!!!

      • Anthony_Lilles

        I love this — it is beautiful and true!

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