Watching, Waiting, Praying in Gethsemene

What do you do when God doesn’t tell you to do anything in particular, save to watch, wait, and pray? What do you do when the summons, the divine call, isn’t necessarily to activity, but rather to holding on, to standing still, to rest?

By Chris Sparks

[Jesus said,] I often wait with great graces until towards the end of prayer (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 268).

For some time — a couple of years now — in my own life, my personal discernment of God’s will in prayer has resulted again and again in three words in particular. 

Watch. Wait. Pray. 

And it all seemed to be summed up in my standing there in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Extraordinary grace
That was one of the great graces of my Holy Land pilgrimage. The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem was lovely in the spring, before the summer heat had dried everything out. The plants were all green, and everywhere flowers were ablaze with color. I ended up there unexpectedly early and for an unexpectedly long time — it ended up being about an hour. 

As I was standing there, watching the other pilgrimage groups and tourists pass along the edge of the olive trees, feeling the beautiful temperature of an Israeli spring, and praying in thanksgiving for being there, it struck me with some force that I was watching in the Garden of Gethsemane with our Lord in a far more direct and real way than I would have ever thought possible. It was an extraordinary grace.

The olive trees, some of whose roots go back to the time of Christ, are to one side of an enormous church built over the spot that tradition tells was where Christ prayed and wept blood before His Passion. It was curious to be waiting there. Remember the Scripture?

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again (Mt 26:36-44).

Waiting on the Lord
What do you do when God doesn’t tell you to do anything in particular, save to watch, wait, and pray? What do you do when the summons, the divine call, isn’t necessarily to activity, but rather to holding on, to standing still, to rest?

It can feel like simply listening to my own sloth, to doing what suits my laziness and my own self-serving appetites. Waiting.

And yet Christian waiting, like Christian peace, isn’t what worldliness would tell us. We’re not on vacation when God tells us to wait. Christian rest doesn’t mean ceasing to obey God’s law, or taking a vacation from virtue. 

Peace implies right order; waiting implies preparation. 

Watching implies staying awake. 

Waiting implies patience, and the strength to remain where one is for an unspecified duration. 

Pray — that means one is active in the deepest, most profound way, even as the world or the flesh calls it doing nothing, or meaningless words spoken out into the empty air.

And yet—watch, wait, pray. Be at peace.

That’s a Christian call, not a vicious one. Indeed, it’s a call that mirrors the summons Christ gave the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The apostles and disciples didn’t themselves suffer much direct physical violence during Holy Week. Their suffering came in the form of fear, of uncertainty, of a lack of clarity, of the choice between remembering what Jesus had said and done before, or of forgetting and failing in faith. Christ bore the Cross; the disciples’ crosses were yet to come, in many ways, and only after they’d been transformed and strengthened at Pentecost.

But their enormous, crushingly difficult cross that came through the Passion was the difficulty of patience, of belief, of holding steady, and holding on, and holding strong. 

The Burden of Moses
The burden of the Garden is the burden of Moses, interceding for the Israelites. When he stayed strong, still, and standing with his arms upraised in prayer, they were winning. When he grew tired and lowered his arms, they were losing. 

Try to hold your arms out from your sides. Don’t use weights or anything. Just hold your arms out. Keep them there for 10 minutes. Hold on. 

Can you do it? Can you last even five minutes? 

The apostles faced a similar challenge: defying the burden of sleep. 

Stay awake when you’re tired, when it’s warm, when there’s nothing much else going on. Try to stay awake. 

These lightest of burdens can be enough to crush the greatest among us. 

The preparation of the wise servants in so many of Christ’s parables shows just that — a people successfully staying awake for their master, successfully watching, waiting, and praying. Others show wise and foolish virgins, all of whom fell asleep, but the wise virgins had planned ahead and brought the necessary supplies to be ready when the master came regardless. 

The Christian era
The whole Christian life since the Ascension has been, in a way, watching, waiting, and praying. There’s been a whole lot of work, of course — many crosses borne, martyrs made, and saints sanctified. And yet just as the Chosen People in the first Israel waited (and continue to wait) for the Advent of the Messiah, so now does the New Israel, the Church, await the New Advent of the Second Coming of the Messiah.

The whole world is the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is praying. Will you stay awake? Will you watch, wait, pray? Will you be at peace in the face of all the world, the flesh, or the devil throw at you, remembering what Jesus has done and said, remembering the many proofs He has given us of our faith, of His promises and power? 

Remember the endurance of the Jewish people and of the Church, in spite of everything. Remember the saints, the beauty, the truth spread by Jews and Christians. Remember the works of mercy, the signs and wonders, the prophets, the proofs of our faith.

I was standing in the physical Garden of Gethsemane then; I’m in the spiritual Garden of Gethsemane now, waiting on the Lord.

Pray for me; I’ll pray for you.

Photo by Stacey Franco on Unsplash
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