Watch and Pray: Making Time for God
Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41 NAB).
Vigilance in daily prayer is difficult at best, but more often cumbersome, for the vast majority of modern Catholics. It is a practice that requires discipline, and in order for us to grow in this discipline, we must rely heavily on Divine Grace for consistency and constancy. Today Jesus’ words haunt me as I ponder their weight. These words seem so foreboding, spoken millennia ago to weary and naïve apostles while Jesus’ Passion began in the Garden of Gethsemane. We often perpetuate a similar complacency in our daily lives, and so it is of great benefit to our personal path toward sanctification that we meditate – often – on what it means to watch and pray.
A common internet search reveals a deeper significance to the word watch. To watch means “to keep vigil as a devotional exercise; to be awake during the night; to be attentive or vigilant; to keep guard; to keep someone or something under close observation; to observe as a spectator; and to be expectant” (merriam-webster.com). Curiously, this word bears a rich, spiritual significance, even when posed in a secular dictionary.
Jesus wants us to watch in every sense – to wait in the quiet and calm, to develop patience in that waiting, to listen carefully to His voice whispering to our hearts. Does He merely ask us to be passive observers, as one particular definition describes? Perhaps on occasion we are called to do this, as long as we are engaged in the watching. To watch in the beckoning call from God does not imply sloth or laziness, in which we do nothing but blankly notice people or our surrounding milieu. Instead, watching must be a joint act of the will and of the heart, in which we pick up nuances from conversations with loved ones or perhaps become keenly aware of a subtle plea for help from a neighbor or even stranger.
This is how God speaks to His people, yet we exist in a culture that encourages excess, noise, and escapism. It is nearly impossible for us to avoid the incessant stimuli tossed at us when we patronize the grocery store or even while pumping gas at the gas station. Noise creates a constant distraction so that our hearts soon become desensitized to the (often hidden) ways in which God is calling us to love. Because of this, we must create a space and time in our daily lives that is devoid of noise and chaos; it is the imperative of which Jesus prefaced the subsequent invitation to pray.
First, we watch: we clear our calendars and our minds of all that diverts our attention throughout the day. We simply sit and listen in the silence of our hearts. At first, we may experience restlessness, anxiety, or irritability. These are the residual effects of the frenetic pace of our culture. Our bodies require an adjustment period to switch gears from busyness to openness. This takes an incredible amount of time, and, yes, discipline. Disciplining our minds to be emptied of worry, fear, unanswered phone calls or emails, incomplete projects at home or work; disciplining our hearts to let go of our trepidation in facing ourselves and God; disciplining our bodies to sit still irrespective of what temptations may be presented to us – this is the aspect of the human condition that necessitates Divine Grace, for we cannot discipline ourselves perfectly and of our own volition. “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
When we create that space and time in our day to sit in stillness is when the watching and waiting begins. We anticipate the arrival of our Beloved, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. We do not fill our minds with questions for Him; we simply rest in His presence and bask in His love. It seems oversimplified and sounds all too easy, but everyone reading this knows it is quite difficult to accomplish one day, let alone every day.
Yet this is the desire of Jesus’ heart: for us to love Him so much that we long to connect with Him, heart-to-heart, every day. When we do acts in the spirit of love, they are no longer onerous; instead, they become easy, because love makes the most impossible feats occur flawlessly.
It is the watching and waiting that permits us to participate in the Agony in the Garden with Jesus, for we are an impatient people who dwell in a world of instant gratification. We don’t tend to wait for anyone or anything, and we often take this constant speed of doing for granted. Yet when we discipline ourselves to sit and wait, we cease doing and enter into being. It is in the realm of being where we encounter Christ most profoundly.
And that is what leads us to pray. To pray is defined secularly as “to entreat; to implore; to make a request in a humble manner; to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving” (merriam-webster.com). Our God is a personal God, a Triune God, a God who is our Father, our Brother, our Advocate. Naturally, the Church defines the same four types of prayer: Adoration, Contrition/Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. I memorized these as a child and yet never truly internalized the beauty and depth of prayer until well into my adulthood.
When we pray, we do not always have to speak. In fact, in this verse, Jesus summons us to listen. It is a listening of the heart, one that is attentive to the sufferings within us that beg for healing, the sufferings of others who silently wallow in their anguish because of a sense that no one truly cares about their plight, and the sufferings of humanity: wars, famine, disease, and all the –isms that have plagued humankind since its origin.
To watch and to pray are both necessary in order for our souls to be aware of the subtle and overt ways in which temptations lurk in our lives. The call to watch and to pray with Jesus is followed by that warning, “that you may not undergo the test.” Trials are certain, but sins we can avoid. However, sinning becomes much less painful and more justifiable when we become comfortable with our busyness, complacent in our spiritual journeys, and apathetic towards the sufferings of others.
As we approach Lent, let us contemplate the words watch and pray with Jesus. Let us place ourselves in the Garden with Him, observing His agony, offering Him our own darkness and strife as an act of love and unity. Let us reach for Him, permitting Him to touch our wounds and join them with His so that our souls are penetrated with deep healing. Let us cease neglecting that simple petition: Will you not watch one hour with me? How can we deny Him our hearts and our time when He has given us a total sacrifice of Himself?