I want to concentrate on prayer over the three great days of the Easter Triduum, particularly to see how the ceremonies in which we take part, teach us more about how to pray. So let’s begin with Holy Thursday
Our Gospel (John 13:1-15) has given us the familiar story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and that is the ceremony that Bishops and priests with their people re-enact on this Holy Thursday night. But what we humans too easily tend to concentrate on is the command at the end – to wash one another’s feet. In other words we tend to concentrate on ourselves, on what we should be doing. Now certainly it is important to hear and act on that message to love one another, but if we are not careful we miss out on what comes first, not on what we should do, but what we should allow God to do to us. We have to allow God to love us.
We see this in Peter’s refusal, to start with, to allow Jesus to wash his feet. In typical Peter fashion he says “Never…. you shall never wash my feet”. Jesus then has to explain to him, and thus to us, that unless we allow ourselves to be washed by him we cannot be in communion with him.
This is the mistake most of us make in prayer. We tend to think that prayer is something we do, that prayer is us communicating with God. When we approach prayer this way we are treating God as a power outside us, at a distance from us. Now although God is distant from us, the heart of the message of Jesus is that God has chosen to come close to us, to be one with us in and through Jesus. To really pray as a Christian we have to begin by recognising that prayer is principally God speaking to us, God working in us, God with us – Immanuel.
As I said Peter shows us this very graphically. First of all he doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet at all. He wants to love and to follow Jesus, just as we all do, but he wants to do it, as we do, in his way. He has grand ideas, as we do, about being the servant of God, of doing his will and following his ways. But in Jesus God turns the whole thing upside down and Peter has to learn this, just as we do. We have to allow God to serve and to love us first, for he is the source of love and thus the source of all prayer.
This becomes even harder for us to grasp when the ceremonies of this holy night move on. As the altar is stripped of all its finery and everything is left bare, we are reminded that in the end all that we have to offer to God however special it may be, is, in the end, nothing. For in the end it is just us and God. Let me read to you a parable that expressed this from a great writer on prayer – Ruth Burrows.
It is from her simple book on Christianity called “To believe in Jesus”.
God has given each of us the task of fashioning a beautiful vase for him which we must carry up the mountain in order to place in his hands. This vase represents everything we can do to please God, our good works, our prayers, our efforts to grow to maturity ; all this God values most highly…. When we reach the top a double shock awaits us. God is not there – there is silence, no response when we make our arrival known. Secondly the vase… it isn’t beautiful anymore. There it is in our hands, a tawdry common pot… the vase into which we had put our all. A deep instinct is telling us that if we want God we have to go over the other side of the mountain.. We can’t go down with anything in our hands; we must drop the vase, still precious though so disappointing.. Beautiful or not, we cannot take it with us, we must go to God with nothing in our hands. Our spiritual achievement is our most precious treasure. It has to go.”
Now I do not want you to think that there is therefore nothing we can do for God, nothing we can say to God. Ruth Burrows and other great teachers on prayer make clear that all that we do and say matters to God. The problem comes when it begins to matter too much to us. Then, if we reach a time, when we find it difficult or impossible to pray as we used to, when some tragedy strikes us, or we are faced with illness or depression, we can think that God is not there. Then we go to Mass and feel nothing, and think that if we feel nothing it is not worth going when actually God is just as present as he has ever been, and what we need to do is go on as if through a desert until some oasis in our life enables us to realise that actually he was there in our darkest moment.
We will think of this more on Good Friday – the darkest day of the year for Christians – but for now we are left with the challenge that Jesus poses to his disciples after the Supper is over and they have moved on to the Garden of Gethsemane. He simply asks us, as he asked them. “Stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and pray” This is when prayer gets really difficult for our minds are full of all the things in our life that we want to think about and which seem to distract us from being with him. We try to sit or kneel with him in the silence, and feel we are failing as our mind races around on this or that which seems to take us so far from what we should be doing.
Some people find help here by saying the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer or reading the Bible, and yes these can be good ways of helping us to stay with him, to watch with him. But sometimes it is better just to be quiet with him despite all the distractions, to just admit before him how weak and silly we are, and maybe like the disciples how hard we find it to stay awake. We need then to remember that when he wakes them up, Jesus still loves them as he loves us for that is why he washed their feet. Our prayer has to be most of all a dwelling, an abiding in that love.
Remember how Jesus compares us to the branches of a vine. He is the root, the stock from which all the growth, our love and activity, comes. He says
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. ……….. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5)
In the end we need to know that prayer is just being with God. That is why the greatest prayer of all is not our words or our thoughts, but simply the action of the Mass. The greatest prayer is his presence with us – his Body and Blood that he gave us as the way to be one with him on this holy night. Yes he wants us to love God and to love our fellow humans in every way we can, but in the end, he calls us simply to be one with him – to be with him in the silence and to know he is always with us even to the end of the world.