Lent is often seen as a season of denying ourselves comfortable pleasures we’d rather not live without. Be it disavowing that slice of chocolate cake or forgoing our regular Seinfeld marathons, fasting from our various favorite delectations can be uncomfortable. However, not only is it meant to focus our attention on “the One thing necessary” (Lk 10:42), but our response to it, and any other penance we undertake, also helps prepare our response to the unchosen pains we experience that are a consequence of living in a fallen world.
But be it in chosen mortifications, or those perhaps larger sufferings we have no choice but to take up, there is nothing we endure that Christ hasn’t already experienced, nor weight we bear which our loving Savior hasn’t already felt. He takes everything that grieves us upon Himself. He mercifully becomes our model, in “agonies” small and great, and calls us to follow His lead, beginning in the Garden where He teaches us how to pray. There in Gethsemane, Jesus illustrates three important aspects, in particular, about praying in the midst of tribulations. He teaches us:
To feel the emotional heaviness of our burdens but not despair.
To be vigilant and remain close to Him in temptations.
To surrender humbly, in trust, to His will, for He knows all things and loves us even to the point of the Cross.
“My soul is sorrowful even unto death.”
A life conformed to Christ does not mean one devoid of emotion, and learning to suffer with our gaze fixed on Him does not signify an apathetic or numb response. Jesus in the Garden very importantly demonstrates going to prayer even with a broken heart. It is in feeling the emotional heaviness of our miseries that we can learn to choose Him regardless; and in choosing Him in our lowest moments, we can practice what Christ so evidently displays, namely, not despairing even when the sorrow we’re experiencing seems overwhelming.
Prayer may be the last place we want to go when we feel crushed by grief, but Jesus exemplifies that there is no better place to be when our souls feel most burdened than in the Father’s presence. When I am in distress or feeling dejected, I usually have to actively remind myself that I don’t have to be in a particular emotional state to choose Christ but that I can right in that moment and that it matters to do so. Recently, I’ve been turning to the Psalms in times such as these; they are the perfect example of crying out to God in the extremities of human emotion, trusting He hears and responds, and that He’s near to us in every hollowness or pain. Our vulnerability and wounds can be access points into which Christ can enter and pour His grace. And He likewise pulls us up into His wounds, which give us access to His Heart.
“Tell aching mankind to snuggle close to My merciful Heart, and I will fill it with peace.”
In the Diary of Saint Faustina (1074), Jesus says to her, “Tell aching mankind to snuggle close to My merciful Heart, and I will fill it with peace.” The devotion to Divine Mercy re-emphasizes what we see in the Garden of Gethsemane: that Jesus is inexhaustibly compassionate to our sorrows. In His own, He thirsts for us, those for whom He lays down His life willingly, and in ours, He asks us to look to Him as our Hope and all we need to fill us.
“Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
Secondly, in Gethsemane Christ reveals to us the importance of vigilance and of being solidly rooted in Him, for He is the source of all strength. Through Him alone will we be able to withstand the temptations that threaten our weak flesh, jeopardizing our sanctity and eternal happiness.
These temptations come in all forms. Often, considering ourselves invincible, we willingly enter near occasions of sin and fall to worldly allurements. But, we can also fall easily to doubt, fear, resentment, or aridity. We can be tempted, too, towards discouragement, especially when we experience our weakness. But we need not be distressed when we experience the trials of temptations. Jesus tells us not to be surprised; He reminds us, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) We see this clearly when Jesus defeated Satan in the desert, rendering us confident in His divinity as our power and the dominion of His grace. We also see God’s authority and encouragement in His command in the garden: “Watch and pray.” Realizing our helplessness, He tells us exactly what we need to do when facing twisted wants or any seduction of the devil, who “prowls about like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Perhaps, in our various slothful tendencies that take us gradually away from Jesus, where we allow sin to invade, we can imagine ourselves in the place of the disciples slumbering in the garden. I’ve always identified with them, feeling pity for their exhaustion. It’s a sobering awakening, however, to see their sleep as the parts of my heart that are hardened, my inclinations to cling to self-reliance, any indifference that clouds my gaze being set firmly “to the East.” Jesus mercifully knows our desire for Him and meets us exactly where we are. However, He is also Truth itself and never compromises, like we often do, with sin. Therefore, when He finds us resting in anything other than Him, He asks us, too, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” It’s a charge to remain close in difficulties and failings, a loving order to consistently abide in Him; He will save us. And it’s imperative that we heed Him, for Christ alone is Victor.
“Yet, not as I will, but as You will.”
Lastly, and most importantly, Christ’s example of prayer in the Garden invites us to the humility of trust. Humility has to be the foundation of prayer. Jesus shows us that we can present our petition honestly while still submitting to the Father, acknowledging that He is God, and we are not. If we deeply trust that in all things His purpose is love, we can surrender to His will, with serene abandonment, whatever it may be. This isn’t easy; afterall, doubt is at the root of the fall. But Christ is so tender in bringing that wound to redemption, choosing humiliation to prove His trustworthiness and death in order to fight to bring us to Himself.
This past year, I wrestled often with trusting God’s goodness and abundant generosity when He seemed to ask me to endure considerable loss. Two major hip surgeries took away my goals of training for another marathon. Running to me was more than merely exercise, but something that brought me great joy. My attention settled upon the Gospel’s innumerable stories of healings, witnessing to Christ answering affirmatively the plea of His suffering creation, alleviating pain and restoring spirits. I couldn’t understand why He always answered yes to those eagerly seeking cures to their maladies. Wouldn’t He in His wisdom deem it necessary to leave a model for those whose intercessions appear to go unanswered?
Then one day in prayer, after bringing the question and ache to Him there repeatedly, He reminded me in His gentle and kind voice, that He Himself becomes our example in those times when we’re asked to drink the bitter cup, when the Father’s will is not our own preference, and when we dread what’s asked of us and would rather evade it. He lays Himself down freely so that we can take up our crosses with His strength. He empties Himself out so as to fill us in our poverty.
"The Eucharist is the bread that gives strength...It is at once the most eloquent proof of His love and the most powerful means of fostering His love in us.”
As Catholics we have the immense blessing of the Eucharist. When we’re assailed by burdens, temptations, and suffering, we need look no further than the Altar to see God is good. Saint Damien of Molokai, who met suffering with heroic virtue, serving the Hawaiin people in a leper colony and eventually succumbing to the illness himself, said, “The Eucharist is the bread that gives strength...It is at once the most eloquent proof of His love and the most powerful means of fostering His love in us.” In any darkness, we should grope towards the Eucharist, Christ’s Light and Love made manifest. Eyes fixed upon Him there, we can obey even when we don’t understand. In trust, we can imitate our Redeemer Who didn’t flee from or resent the Cross but embraced it to give us freedom and life. And there’s always lavish grace for the difficult task, yet unmerited privilege, of being called to walk in the footsteps of our crucified Master.
The Cross: the Wisdom of God
In the garden, Jesus displays trust unfettered by the bonds of sin and pride that constrict us. But even in our brokenness, He’s present to aid us and make up for our lack. So these last couple weeks of Lent, let us join Him in prayer there in Gethsemane. Let us entrust to Him our sorrows, remain vigilant, and surrender humbly in trust. And let us not fear our daily penances, or any burden however heavy. Our Savior has already sanctified them by His Blood. He’s calling us to Himself, through Himself, and He won’t forsake us along the way of Calvary.
The Cross is the beginning and end of prayer. It is through the Cross that Jesus gives us the grace of access to our Heavenly Father and calls us into prayer. And it is by the Cross’s fruits that we will be united to Christ the Bridegroom, celebrating the Resurrection’s glory, eternally.
New American Bible Revised Edition. Saint Benedict's Press, 2011, USCCB, bible.usccb.org/bible/luke/10.
New American Bible Revised Edition. Saint Benedict's Press, 2011, USCCB, bible.usccb.org/bible/matthew/26.
Kowalska, Saint Maria Faustina. Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul. Third ed., Marian Press, 2016.
New American Bible Revised Edition. Saint Benedict's Press, 2011, USCCB, bible.usccb.org/bible/john/16.
New American Bible Revised Edition. Saint Benedict's Press, 2011, USCCB, bible.usccb.org/bible/1peter/5.
Guzman, Sam. “Gentleman Saint: Saint Damien of Molokai.” The Catholic Gentleman, 23 June 2014, catholicgentleman.net/2014/06/gentleman-saint-saint-damien-of-molokai/.
This post is a contribution by Abby Slater.