Monday, March 06, 2023

Lectio Divina (3): The Agony in the Garden

Many Catholics who first attempt lectio divina find, perhaps to their surprise, that it can be something of a struggle. We hear it extolled to the heights, only to discover that it takes hard work, at least in the initial phase of growing into a new habit. It is one thing to read Scripture at a comfortable trot, following the story line and feeling moved by the events, much as one might feel reading a short story or a poem; it is quite another thing to walk slowly through half a chapter or to linger over a few verses, asking, seeking, knocking on just a few words. We start to feel impatient; we want to “get on with it”; we think we know what the text is saying already, because we’re heard it (or something like it) countless times at Mass; and worst of all, our mind begins to wander.

For those who know, in faith, that Scripture is God’s very own Word spoken to our hearts—why, otherwise, would we desire to draw so near to this burning bush?—it can be something of an agony to find that we are neither quickly ignited nor easily kept ablaze. And yet, we know that we must keep our place near the Word; we stay at our post, and we ask, we seek, we knock, trusting that the Divine Master will speak to us when we are ready to hear—indeed, that His Word, of which our mind is a far-distant echo, has the power to make us ready to hear what He will say.

Once, when meditating St. Mark’s account of the Agony in the Garden (Mk 14:32–42), I noticed that Jesus issues four sets of commands to his disciples, as indicated by the imperative verbs:
  1. v. 32: “Sit here . . .” (This is addressed to all the disciples.) 
  2. v. 34: “Remain here, and watch [or keep awake].” (This is addressed to Peter, James, and John.)
  3. v. 38: “Watch and pray.” (This is addressed to Peter.)
  4. v. 42: “Rise . . . See.” (This seems to be addressed to Peter, James, and John.)
Those four imperatives struck me as closely bound up with the four steps of lectio divina:
  1. “Sit here.” — Lectio
  2. “Remain/abide here, and keep awake.” — Meditatio
  3. “Keep awake and pray.” — Oratio
  4. “Rise . . . See.” — Contemplatio
The first step is simply to sit down to the banquet of the Word: sit HERE. Do not wander elsewhere looking for wisdom; do not think it is vaguely all around you, like an invisible benign gas floating in the air. No, wisdom will be found in one particular person, Jesus Christ, and at one particular time, this moment of your prayer, and in one particular place, the inspired word He speaks to you. It is an act of faith to accept that this is true and that it will be fruitful for us, just as it was an act of faith for those three apostles to follow Jesus into the heart of the dark garden where he would be handed over for the life of the world.

The second step is a continuation of the first—you were already sitting here, now remain here, do not go away when you get distracted or tired or afraid or bored—and yet goes further: keep awake. Turn your mind actively, questioningly, to the word in front of you. Turn it over and over, bang your head against it and stay awake, alert for what it is trying to tell you.

The third step again continues the prior step (keep awake!—we can’t ever give up our vigilance and just go to sleep), but adds, tellingly: pray. Out of your abiding in the Lord’s word, surely a prayer will begin to rise in your heart. Let it rise, let it swim into your consciousness, into your own words, so that it can be the response you make, from your heart, to the Lord speaking to you. Pray—pray for yourself, for your loved ones, your enemies, your rulers, anyone and anything you have a desire to pray about or pray for. In so doing, you will not only stay awake, you will become an instrument by which the Lord spreads His wakefulness and his peace to others beyond yourself.

The fourth step is a surprise: Rise, the Lord says, and see. Here is where the Lord lifts us up by His own strength, for we cannot raise ourselves to His heights. Yet He commands us to rise, because if we intend to rise by His grace, He will raise us up, for He is gracious and He loves mankind. SEE, see what there is to see in His mysteries: He will begin to show them and share them with us by an unexpected insight, an unmerited immersion into His simple truth. This is the gift of contemplation, and it begins with our willingness to rise up and see.

In the garden, Jesus himself prays three times, using the same words—a model for us, as we wrestle with the angel of God, as we accept the chalice we must drink, as we discover that the Father’s will is our sustenance and our life.

(Part III of a four-part series.  Part I is here; Part II, here.)

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