In the second century Bishop Marcion was the son of the Bishop of Sinope, a town on the southern coast of the Black Sea in present day Turkey. He didn’t intend to become a heretic. It was only because of his admiration and adulation for his ‘Divine Lord’ that he became horrified at the very idea that he had to undergo the indignity of being born into, and growing up in, a degraded and decadent material world like the rest of us. That’s why he wrote his own Gospel to put matters right. It began with Jesus fully grown – ‘In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, God descended into Capharnaum and taught on the Sabbath’. Now the truth of the matter is that this is how God could have planned the incarnation, but he didn’t. He didn’t, because he wanted to be like us in every way possible, as St Paul insisted. This would enable us to learn from him and from his own personal spirituality.
Spirituality is just the word used to describe how a person chooses, as Jesus chose, to plan their whole lives around the daily endeavour of making themselves continually available to receive the Holy Spirit. In order to do this we know, as a matter of fact, that Jesus prayed at least five times a day, as did his early followers. The essence of the prayer of Jesus contained in the Shema, that all Jews used, entailed dedicating every moment of every day to loving God with every part and with every fibre of his being (Lk 2:29. Jn 4:34). All his prayer was directed to this end. Although we know the essential content of his daily prayer there are, nevertheless, many indications in the scriptures that prayer wasn’t always easy. Pledging himself to love his Father come what may, day in day out, might be simple, but it certainly wasn’t always plain sailing. In fact on occasions it became close to hell on earth for a person of such a delicate and sensitive nature, and sometimes excruciatingly painful, both physically and mentally.
What is interesting is that on two of these occasions, ‘though he was alone in his prayer, Jesus took the trouble to tell others how he prayed, and the inner anguish that this caused him. Quite evidently he did this so that we could be in no doubt that prayer can be at one moment ecstasy, and at another moment agony, and all stations in between. That is why he told us, through his disciples, that, when he prayed in the desert for forty days, he encountered terrible temptations, as the power of evil threatened to divert him from his purpose. The sufferings that he experienced there were intensified later, when in the garden of Gethsemane, he had to endure three hours of spiritual and physical pain and suffering. Here his prayer became so agonising, so excruciating, that he sweated blood, not just at the thought of the terrible ordeal that was ahead of him, but much more. It was at the thought of how little, what he was to endure, would affect those for whom he would suffer and die.
Perhaps the most moving prayer that Jesus ever made was while he was being hammered to the cross, when he prayed for forgiveness for his executioners and for those who had ordered his death, and for those who were pleased to hear that he had been executed. They were not pleased because – ‘it was necessary that one man should die for the sake of the people’ but for the sake of their power over the people, and for the privileged positions that they had enjoyed before his truth had threatened to undermine them and expose their hypocrisy. The truth is not a dainty dish to set before the most dangerous animal on earth, particularly if they have political or religious pretentions. They prefer Ambrosia to eat and Nectar to drink, and have little appetite for humble pie! If the truth is continually proclaimed no matter what, it will make them cross, very cross, and when they are very cross they can crucify.
It would be naïve to think that the temptations that Jesus endured were only experienced as isolated events that occurred at the beginning and at the end of his public life, for the evidence is quite the contrary. One of the main themes in the Gospels is the opposition of so many of the ‘great and the good’ to him personally, as well as to his teaching. Needless to say then that, as he paused to pray at least five times a day, his prayer would have been continually disturbed with the thought of how to get through to the perverse pig-headed and persisting hostility that greeted his every word. That they were backed up by and reinforced by the sort of miracles that had never been seen before, seemed to matter little, for ‘even if a man were to be raised from the dead they would not believe’. Nor would it be realistic to think that such distractions only arose in his prayer after he had made his first public appearance. As he grew up his supersensitive human nature and sharp mind would have long since seen, the cant, the hypocrisy and the humbug that prevailed everywhere in the religion of his forbears that he come to reform and transform.
The perfection of human wisdom is love, and love does not just happen, it has to be learnt. So like any other human being Jesus had to learn too. He had to learn how to love his Father by repeatedly trying to love him with his whole heart and mind, and with his whole body and with his whole strength. I say trying, because he was, as we have seen, and as he went out of his way to tell us, not just distracted, but even tempted to do otherwise. Now having distractions in prayer is not a sin, nor are temptations for that matter, unless you give in to them. Jesus never gave in to them, but turned away from them continually to commit himself to his Father, to love him and to do his will, as can be seen so graphically in his prayer in Gethsemane. It was in this way that he had to do what other human beings would have to do, who wished to follow his example. They too would have to learn how to love, day by day throughout their lives. This is why many years later the Franciscan mystic and mother, St Angela of Foligno said that prayer is in fact – the school where loving is learn – (Schola divini amoris). And that’s why St Teresa of Avila said that you can’t actually pray without distractions! There are no distractions, if you fall asleep, because you are doing nothing, and if you are in ecstasy (!) you are also doing nothing, because God is doing everything. True prayer takes place between sleep and the ecstasy, and there will always be distractions that enable us to learn how to love the Father, as Jesus did. Each time a person turns back to him in prayer, they are in fact practising the repenting that St Peter said was the only way to receive the unique outpouring of God’s love on the first Pentecost Day.
St Francis of Assisi said, what Jesus knew only too well before him, that “It is in giving that you receive,” and it is in loving therefore that you receive love in return. As Jesus continually endeavoured to love his Father, not just despite the distractions and temptations, but because of them, he began to receive in ever greater abundance. And what he received was the profusion of infinite love with which his Father was able to fill his human nature through his divine nature that had bound him to his Father from all eternity. This divine nature was to remain with him throughout his life on earth, as the means through which his human nature was progressively divinized.
Imagine an hour glass filled with gold dust to symbolise the love of God. As long as the empty half, symbolising the human nature of Jesus, remained open, then the process of receiving the love of God continued until it was not only full, but full to overflowing, as it was after his death and glorification. We are heirs and heiresses to this supernatural superfluity of love that draws us up into the one the first Christians called Christ our Brother.
Thence onwards, in with and through him into our true and everlasting home, where we will experience to eternity, with all who we love and hold dear, the ecstatic bliss of enjoying in the vortex of love unlimited, as it endlessly revolves to and fro between the Father and the Son.