“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41
Lent, the 40 days that precede Easter, is a time set aside by the Church to help prepare our hearts for the celebration of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Through penance, fasting, and almsgiving, we seek to draw near to the One who has the power to save and transform us. By means of our sacrifices, we ask Jesus to purify our hearts and minds so that we might be transformed in Him – that we might experience a profound conversion of heart. On our own we can do nothing (Jn 15:5), and it is only by means of His grace that we can be given the strength we need to walk our Lenten path.
What does it mean to ‘watch’?
Our Lord cautions that if we want to journey with Him, we need to watch and pray so that we will be able to resist temptation when it comes. “Be sober, be watchful,” warns St. Peter in his first letter to the early Christian communities in Asia Minor. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). St. Peter knew only too well that not every ‘voice’ is the voice of the Beloved; there is also the voice of temptation that comes from the enemy, the one who unceasingly tries to discourage us and lead us away from the Lord.
How can we know what is of the Lord and what is not? We need to be mindful and exercise discernment in our prayerful listening, “test[ing] the spirits to see whether they are of God” (1 Jn 4:1). The enemy constantly tries to undermine our faith and resolutions. He insinuates that it’s far too difficult for mere mortals to follow in Jesus’ path – that we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. “Surely,” he whispers in our ear, “God never expected (or wanted) you to have to wrestle this way with your ‘natural’ inclinations. Just do what feels right!”
But we will not have the strength to resist the voice of temptation through watchfulness alone. ‘Staying awake’ means we also need to pray. God knows we are not unlike those first disciples who, overcome by fatigue, were unable to resist the temptation to give in to their overwhelming desire for sleep. While God is not surprised by our weaknesses, He doesn’t want us to ‘settle’ for less than He has created us to be; He calls us to go beyond ourselves. “Be not afraid! I am with you,” He assures us. “I will strengthen and uphold you. You can place all your trust in Me! (cf. Is 41:10)”
Discerning the Voice of the Lord
The more we pray, the more familiar we become with the way God works in our lives. Over time, we get to be more and more attuned to His Voice and His Presence. We come to see that if our prayer is driven by fear of rejection or pride in accomplishment, the voice of the Lord will be distorted – for anxiety and fear are not of the Lord. It is in the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that we find the signs of the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22-23). It is the Spirit who comes to help us in our weakness: “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. (Rom 8:26).”
In prayer, we find the source of all the grace we need. Though it is watchfulness that reveals temptation, it is through prayer that our Lenten sacrifices can be transformed from “grit-your-teeth-and-endure-it” penances into joyful promises lived from the overflow of our love for the Lord. St. Teresa of Ávila was convinced of the fundamental role of prayer, reminding her Carmelite Sisters that “the fasts, the disciplines, and the silence the order commands will not be wanting” if they simply persevered in prayer.1 Like Jesus’ disciples, we too ask, “How, then, should we pray?” (cf. Lk 11:1)
“We must speak to God as a friend speaks to his friend, servant to his master; now asking some favour, now acknowledging our faults, and communicating to Him all that concerns us, our thoughts, our fears, our projects, our desires, and in all things seeking His counsel.” – St. Ignatius of Loyola
What is prayer?
Prayer is an intimate conversation initiated by God. The Catechism teaches that “God calls man first. … The living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.”2
This response of prayer first begins with humility – with the recognition of who we are and who God is. Faced with our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we place our trust in God’s infinite love, power, and mercy. Our prayer of petition – when we place all our needs in His Hands and ask for His help – is pleasing to the Lord. It is an expression of our faith in God, who has promised that if we ask, we shall receive (Mt 7:7).
Mindful of our own unworthiness, we express our gratitude for answered prayer and the many blessings in our lives with prayers of thanksgiving. At other times, we forget all our needs and sorrows and simply turn to God with prayers of praise. But inevitably, there are times when we offend God and need to ask His forgiveness; it is in the prayer of contrition that we express sorrow to Him for our sins.
How should we pray?
There are different ways by which we may approach God. We may speak to Him using formal prayers such as the ‘Our Father’, the ‘Hail Mary’, and the ‘Glory Be’. We may pray with the Psalms, finding in them words worthy to express the deepest desires of our hearts. At other times, we simply speak to Him from the heart, using our own words. But no matter how we choose to pray, we must always be mindful of Who we are speaking to. For, as St. Teresa of Ávila once observed, “If a person does not think Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he be constantly moving his lips. … If a man is in the habit of speaking to God’s Majesty as he would speak to his slave, and never wonders if he is expressing himself properly, but merely utters the words that come to his lips because he has learned them by heart through constant repetition, I do not call that prayer at all.”3
In our desire to come to know God more intimately, we meditate on passages of Scripture, reading and thinking about who God is and pondering how He wants to act in our lives. And, as our prayer lives deepen, we may discover within ourselves a growing desire to enter into a heart to heart conversation with God – to speak with Him just as we would an intimate friend. In this two-way conversation, we also listen as we patiently wait for Him to reveal His will for us in our lives; we ask Him to show us the path that He would have us go.
In this prayer of contemplation, we may at times find ourselves sinking into wordless silence, content to simply rest in His Presence. But this does not mean that the conversation has come to an end. The Scottish priest, Fr. John Dalrymple, once observed, “Between friends silence is not a breakdown in communication, but an alternative form of communication. … We find that it is possible to pray without words in a silent, wordless communion. We find we are no longer strangers with God, and need not look in a frantic fashion for words to fill the period of praying, but be quite relaxed in silence, speaking when we want to (like two friends walking together), but also able to be silent and still in communion with the Lord.”4
“Intimacy in prayer comes when we find that we can remain in communion with God without any particular desire to move on to some business with him. We are content just to stay with God, conscious that he loves us, trying to respond with our own love. We dwell with God, and he with us.” – Fr. John Dalrymple
Although we may be tempted to think that ‘nothing is happening’ in this wordless silence, it is just the opposite. It is here – in this opening of our hearts to God, in the complete surrender of our interior selves – that God begins to work in our hearts. He helps us grow in our love for Him and gives us the strength we need to be more like Him. In the words of St. Clare of Assisi, “We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. … Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation.”5
“A soul arms itself by prayer for all kinds of combat. In whatever state the soul may be, it ought to pray. A soul which is pure and beautiful must pray, or else it will lose its beauty; a soul which is striving after this purity must pray, or else it will never attain it; a soul which is newly converted must pray, or else it will fall again; a sinful soul, plunged in sins, must pray so that it might rise again. There is no soul which is not bound to pray, for every single grace comes to the soul through prayer.” – St. Maria Faustina
Watch and Pray
Watchfulness and prayer are fundamental pillars of our Christian life. “Watch at all times,” exhorts the Lord, “praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man (Lk 21:36).”
Thankfully, every moment of our days is an opportune time to turn to the Lord. The apostle, St. James, writes, “Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (Jas 5:13-15).”
Through watchfulness and prayer, we unite ourselves to Jesus not only in His Passion and Death, but also in the joy of His Resurrection. “Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Mt 26:41).”
Sharon van der Sloot
1 St. Teresa of Ávila, The Way of Perfection, Study Edition, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1980, 2000), 65.
2 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2567.
3 St. Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle, trans. E. Allison Peers (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2007), 43-44.
4 Fr. John Dalrymple, Simple Prayer (London, England: Darton, Longman, & Todd Ltd, 1984 and 2010), 12.
5 “We become what we love,” Steubenville fuel [Catholic website]; available from https://steubenvillefuel.com/2016/12/07/we-become-what-we-love/; Internet; accessed 8 March 2018.