During that time, Jesus went off into the mountains to pray. He spent the entire night in prayer to God. When it was day, he summoned his disciples. He chose from among them the Twelve, whom he also named apostles. . . . Those tormented by unclean spirits were being healed and the crowds were trying to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing them all.
Luke 6: 12-3; 18-9
Today’s gospel tells us that Jesus went off into the mountains to pray and “spent the entire night in prayer to God.” This small detail communicates its literal meaning quite directly and clearly, and yet its truth is difficult to grasp. How could Jesus, in the midst of all the demands of his ministry, and with such anxiety provoking decisions the next day about whom to choose as Apostles weighing on him, spend an “entire night in prayer to God”? In our own daily lives, we have difficulty finding twenty minutes for meditation, or fifteen minutes for scripture reading. And when we do finally take the time to recite the psalms or say the rosary, we tend to hurry the prayers so that we can get on to something else that feels more important or significant or gratifying to us.
In some ways, the “miracles” Jesus performs are less miraculous to us than his ability to spend a whole night in prayer. As the gospels present it, before any of his most significant decisions and setting of direction in his life, Jesus goes off by himself to spend time in prayer. For Jesus, his actions and decisions are of a piece with his prayer. As he chooses his apostles, he is choosing in accordance with the will of his Father. People try to touch him because they recognize that it is the “power” of God that emanates from him. Unlike for us, for Jesus prayer is not a separate activity of his; it is the relationship in which he lives and from which he acts.
As human beings, we must work at love and to remain in relationship. We are not sheer openness to the love of another. In our lives there is a very fine line between relationship and manipulation. Very often, perhaps most often, we relate to others for our own gratification and benefit. The mode of our presence to them is largely influenced by the result we desire from that presence. It is not a spiritual openness in which “two become one.”
It is this attitude toward relationship with God that makes prayer so difficult for us. Even as we try to be present in love and obedience, opening ourselves, as the Fundamental Principles say, “to God’s living word,” we are always contending with that self-directed energy in us that is always looking for something better to experience or to accomplish. The difference, perhaps, between Jesus and us is that Jesus knows, in every aspect of his personhood, where he comes from and in whom he lives. For us, that awareness is sporadic at best.
When Jesus acts, it is the power of God that is known and experienced. Yet, even Jesus, if he is to do God’s will and serve God’s expression in the world, must spend significant time in solitude and prayer. He must choose to be open and available to God, to the relationship that is his life. He must not allow himself, in a way too familiar to all of us, to forget who he truly is and where he comes from.
Perhaps our sense of separateness and autonomy is our greatest illusion. It is fed by our illusion of invulnerability and immortality. The problem with silence, solitude, and prayer for us is that it demands of us an honest and humble (and so anxiety provoking) self-presence. What is left when the noise, the hyper-activity, and the performance come to an end? What is left of us? What is left is precisely the poor and broken but open and available instrument of God’s love and power. Until we decrease, God cannot increase in us. Prayer is an act of abandonment of our self-promotion and illusions that we might realize the truth of our life hidden “with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).
When we are unable to sleep at night, the hours of night are very long and often very anxiety provoking. Yet, Jesus stays awake and vigilant as he spends “the entire night in prayer.” The terrors of the night, for us, are terrors about all that’s left of us when there is nothing to do and no self-creation to manifest. This experience is a measure for us of how remote our relationship has become with the God who “knows us, understands us, and loves us.” The space of solitude and silence is a space where we can come to learn of love, not a love that we earn but one that is freely and totally given for us as we are. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4: 10)
The “power of God” is known by those who encounter Jesus because his life is inseparable from that love of God for him, which is also a love for all through him. That in us which remains distant and hidden from God tries to love out of a “self” that is unknown of God and which we have created ourselves. Thus, our relations with each other become not manifestations of God’s love and power but rather a contestation among our own attempts to control and manipulate each other.
In the matter of prayer we are always initiates. Perhaps as long as prayer remains an action, among others, of ours, it will always take second place to other more immediate and pressing concerns. Yet, when it becomes our very life, the relationship of love outside of which we really do not exist, then even an “entire night” for prayer will be far too brief.
If we are living a contemplative life we will experience ourselves as living in God. From out of this life in which we experience ourselves as living in God, there shines upon our inner eye a resplendence which enlightens our reason and serves as an intermediary between ourselves and God. If with our enlightened reason we remain standing within ourselves in this resplendence, we will feel our created life in its essential being constantly being immersed in its eternal life. But when we follow this resplendence above and beyond reason with a simple gaze and a willing inclination of our very self right into our highest life, then we experience the transformation of our being in its entirety in God. We thus experience ourselves as being completely embraced by God.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Sparkling Stone, II,D