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His Holiness Pope Paul VI once noted that if we ever really wish to “learn” how to pray, we should begin by looking into the soul of Christ while He was at prayer. And when we reflect upon the prayer of Christ during His Agony in the Garden, the cup--the cup of suffering which we are invited to drink--is central: “Father, everything is possible for You. Take this cup away from Me. But let it be as You, not I, would have it.”
In every life, at one time or another, we are offered the opportunity to share in the cross of Christ. It might be on the occasion of the loss of a loved one. Maybe it will manifest itself through some sickness. At other times, it may be associated with the insecurity caused by unemployment or the tragedy when one recognizes that one’s spouse has ceased to love husband or wife and the consequent depth of loneliness which this causes.
Pastorally speaking, I agree with the author Joan Borysenko: “When we are absolutely miserable, prayer is no longer a dry rote repetition. It becomes a living and authentic cry for help. In pain we forget the ‘thee’s and thou’s’ that keep us separated from God, and reach a new state of intimacy that comes from talking to God in our own way, saying what is in our heart.”
To aid us in our quest for growing in intimacy with God, let us turn with greater attention to the Lord’s prayers on that first Holy Thursday and find lessons which may be applied to our own prayer life. There is no doubt that various manifestations of the cross hurt--hurt deeply. Even Christ at Gethsemane wished to escape suffering. But He was willing to submit to it if it was God’s will. To surrender our wills to God demands prayer. And this is the first lesson we learn from Christ’s agony.
What also leaps out from a meditative reading of these moments in Christ’s life is that He brought His feelings to prayer. And His feelings often resemble our own. For example, Christ is caught in the terrible vise of loneliness. Throughout the Gospel, Christ is portrayed as sensitive and even pained by the loneliness of others.
His words to the widow of Naim, “Do not cry,” speak volumes on this point.
Because He felt so alone, He had turned to His companions and friends for support. But they were sleeping. There is no doubt that their indifference added to His sufferings. Long ago, the Psalmist summed up what must have been His thoughts:
“Were it an enemy who insulted me,
I could put up with that;
Had a rival got the better of me,
I could hide from him.
But you, a man of my own rank,
A colleague and a friend....(Ps. 55, 12-14)
Because the cross is personal for each individual, it is inevitable that there will be a certain amount of loneliness attached to it. And from Christ we can learn that it is all right to feel lonely and that with Him we can make this loneliness part of our offering to the Father.
The same may be said of fear. Christ knew the psalms and the prophets. He knew what ultimately faced Him. One need only read Psalm 22 to grasp what must have been in Christ’s prayer-life:
“Yet here I am, now more worm than man...
I am like water draining away, my bones are all disjointed....
Undoubtedly there must have been feelings of frustration, especially regarding the hopes He had in His disciples. And so often, the cross upsets our future plans and hope. Again, we must learn to unite such feelings with Christ and offer them to the Father.
In the context of the Agony in the Garden we realize the Eucharistic symbolism of the word “cup or chalice”. These words signified Jesus offering His own life-blood to the Father. In the light of this eucharistic motif we might recall the words of St. Gregory the Great: “Christ will really be for us a host of reconciliation with God, if we strive to become hosts ourselves.” If we accept the cross which is offered to us, we will truly become redemptive hosts for ourselves and others.
Those bearing the cross at present may find a certain consolation in ST. Therese of Lisieux’s observation: “It is suffering which makes us resemble Jesus. This is the only means of preparing us to know Him as He knows Himself and to become Gods ourselves. What a destiny!”
Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.