Rest for a while
The lonely place to which Jesus so urgently invited his exhausted disciples was meant to be a place of refreshment and rest. It was supposed to be quiet and peaceful. All that had been done on the apostolic mission was to have been serenely meditated upon there and properly discussed. However, the lonely place turned out to be full of enthusiastic hearers of Jesus’ teaching who had to be looked after and nourished. This intrusion of the work of salvation into the peaceful locale, designated for prayer and contemplation, disconcerts us. Jesus surely wishes to encourage us to submit to the discipline of prayer without distraction. He also wants to train us in His own instinctive generosity of spirit which welcomes with enthusiasm the unexpected seekers after truth who invade the lonely place. It seems that the Lord wants us to be people of profound prayer but also energetically charitable and welcoming. It is not that charity always trumps spirituality. However, by making the lonely place thoroughly our own by praying in it a lot, we will have the magnanimity and goodness to know just what to do to meet the needs of others.
The lonely place where Jesus speaks and listens and explains is one into which others rush expectantly. They come with their many, great needs. There, what is required from us is unselfishness and an attention to them rather than directly to the One from Whom we hope very much to receive. Our time alone with Jesus will not always be interrupted but, when it is disturbed, we are to respond as He does Himself. He is open-handed and welcoming and makes no allusion to the hope of something quite different which had brought Him there. The obligations of the mission and of ordinary hospitality look as if they are intruding, but, in reality, such duties are never genuinely intrusive. They have a natural priority.
The Lord’s invitation to His disciples is warm and personal. There is also urgency and authority in the call to the ‘deserted place’. If all goes to plan there will be no distractions. The disciples need to speak about their mistakes as well as their successes on mission. There will be, in the lonely place, much repentance along with thanksgiving and praise. There are a lot of different things to be said and to be touched upon when we are alone with Jesus. For all its loneliness, the place which is suitable for prayer, is spacious and fully equipped with the time for everything which has to be dealt with. Nevertheless our life of prayer does not scorn brief, snatched moments of devotion. The heart can say its piece quickly sometimes. However there is scope in our life also for more extended devotion. The busy person’s hasty prayers are, under the grace of God, strengthened and rendered possible by more protracted spiritual exercises taking place at less harassed moments.
Devotional exercises are always strenuous if properly entered into. Notwithstanding the expense of energy, they qualify as a rest. Rest for a while says the Lord. Rest for a while. It is not a lengthy vacation which He offers us but He permits us the repose which is necessary. At other moments God calls us to vigilance and says very emphatically, Stay awake.
The lonely place chosen by Jesus for communion with his friends has, then, a certain emptiness. We go there laden with our needs. We have plenty of business to discharge with God. Our heart is full of what must somehow find expression. That heart of ours is not itself a lonely place but as we try to pray it can sometimes feel empty of the right words and devoid of the best emotions. As the Gospel explains things, we discover that our longing to listen and understand brings us to somewhere barren and empty. The real lonely place could look rather unpromising. It is manifestly unfruitful. Its attraction is simply that no one else is there. It would normally be quite unfrequented. We are not all hermits but we need some solitude with God.
The Jesus to whom we hasten to unburden ourselves is rich in love but there is a way in which He is Himself empty. He emptied Himself in order to come to us. The self-emptying of God secures our salvation. The lonely place is an emblem of God and His sacrifice for us. The lonely place is His great heart, pierced for our sake. Jesus gives up everything. He has nothing. Even His life is taken away from Him. The Lord to whom we rush to receive what we need is very poor. We think of the piercing of His side and the pouring out of all that He contained as ‘the well-spring of the Church’s sacraments’. The boundless charity of Christ arises from the abundant love of God and His sacrificial emptying. In the lonely place there seems to be nothing left. The Resurrection fills this emptiness with new life but meanwhile there seems to be nothing for us or anyone.
The Letter to the Ephesians reminds us of the unifying effect of the shedding of the Blood of Christ. The sacrificial and saving blood is poured out to unite those for whom the duty to worship God is familiar and those to whom it is new. All are renewed and strengthened by the self-emptying of God. It is our duty and our salvation to give thanks for this, to worship and to praise the Source of what has been done for us. Our prayer encompasses both the riches expended for us and the emptiness left behind. That prayer in the ‘deserted place’ with Jesus could be so sustaining and so focused is because of Him not us. We may have longed and longed to speak to Him in this way. The disciples were genuinely looking forward to the conversation and to the rest. It was to be a kind of holiday with the Lord, a retreat, an anticipation of some of the joys of heaven.
The conversation itself, the prayer, which turned out to be conducted in brief snatches while coping with the unexpected multitudes who had guessed what they were about, was the work of God. Our desires are important and amid them we hear the command of God. We pray to Him, with Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit. If the disciples had found exactly what they were looking for, the serenity and peace would also have been the achievement of Almighty God. We are all being drawn to Him. The Gospel tells us that many strangers knew exactly the unexpected spot to which to go to find Jesus. His friends can sometimes be less acute. We look for the Lord in the wrong place. We are disappointed with the place which He chooses. Towards all, however, the lonely place exercises a certain magnetism. In this abandoned location is the One who never abandons us. In this spot without amenities is our true Friend, full of amity. The abandonment, the shortages and the loneliness can pain us sometimes. These experiences are our share in the Lord’s emptiness. Out of that emptiness He fills us. Won over to the open heart of our Saviour, we can draw joyfully from the springs of salvation. We make our way to Jesus as best we can and as quickly as possible. Our prayer and our preparation for prayer speed us to this desirable destination.
The Holy Spirit does the work of prayer but it bears fruit in us. The rose blossoming in the desert is our spiritual life flourishing in the company of Jesus. He has time for us and time also for countless others. We celebrate, in prayer, His lavish generosity. We honour also, in Jesus, that divine Power in Him which can make to flower in the desert something sustaining and beautiful. Our life in Christ is full of activity and also full of peace. Both are in His service.
Peter Gallagher SJ