When it was day, he went out to a deserted place. But the crowds continued to seek for him. They came up to him and tried to keep him from leaving them. He told them, “I must preach the good news about the kingdom of God in other towns as well. I have been commissioned for this task.”
Luke 4: 42-3
Unlike the account of this incident in Mark’s gospel, in Luke’s version Jesus does not spend the night in prayer but escapes the crowd only “when it was day.” Luke’s focus is on the public, the active life of Jesus. In the episode from today’s gospel, we hear of the demands on Jesus of the people, and his response to those demands. Even though he is unable to get a significant time apart from the clamoring and demands of the crowd, Jesus is not swept up by them. He spends his time teaching and healing them, but when it is time he leaves and moves on to do what he must.
How does he do this? How does he know what it is that he must do? Perhaps there is no more central question in living the life of faith than the question of how to know God’s will for us and distinguish it from our own unconscious and compulsive motivations. It was the conviction of Brother Ryken that it was only by living a life of both contemplation and action that such appraisal was possible. One of his greatest concerns for his fledging community was that the demands of the apostolate would lead to what he termed a “loss of religious spirit” among his brothers, that is, that they would become through unreflective action distanced from their connection and obedience to God’s life and will within them.
To reflect on our lives at the end of a day can reveal to us how complex are our motivations. We do much of what we do by habit. At other times, we act out of a compulsion to please others or in service to our public identity. At others, we may act merely in reaction to the demands of others or the moment. At other times we refuse to act out of laziness or fear. Hopefully at certain times, however, we also act as Jesus did, in response to the call of God in the present moment. We perform the task for which we “have been commissioned.”
Often we recognize the moment of acting obediently and in love only in retrospect. Such moments are distinguished by a sense of flow and effortlessness. We are both fully present and attentive to the task at hand, and yet, despite our full level of engagement, we remain in a state of relaxation and rest. In Luke’s version of events, Jesus has been up and active the entire night, and yet when the crowds try to keep him from leaving them, he has no difficulty saying “no” to them. He is able to resist not only the pressures of the crowd but also the impulses of his own compulsions that those pressures might evoke. He is able to do this, no doubt, because he remains present — to God and to himself. He need not justify why he cannot stay and must move on; he merely expresses the reason: “I have been commissioned for this task.”
Soren Kierkegaard described purity of heart as the willing “of one thing.” At each moment there is but one thing that is asked of us. Our commission or task is willingly to do that one thing. Inner complexity and rationalization is always a sign that we have lost contact with the impulse of grace that the moment contains. When we will in accord with that impulse, the will of God and our will is aligned. We then, in the words of Angelus Silesius, are like the rose that “is without why.” Living in love is doing the task for which we have been commissioned. It is only by living in “a state of prayer” that we attune to that commission.
When the devils see that you are really fervent in your prayer they suggest certain matters to your mind, giving you the impression that there are pressing concerns demanding attention. In a little while they stir up your memory of these matters and move your mind to search into them. Then when it meets with failure it becomes saddened and loses heart.
Evagrius Ponticus, Chapters on Prayer, #10