“Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)
It is easy sometimes for small details in Scripture to pass by unnoticed if we are reading quickly. Subtle details can be tucked away in the midst of the action and we have to be sure not to miss them.
The Gospels are so full of the workings of Christ; the healings, the teachings, the preaching. Although we know him to be fully God and fully man, it is sometimes easier for us to think of him as God than as man when we are reading of these wondrous things done by him.
It becomes easy to push the human Jesus to the background, to forget the ways that he is just like us. He is human in every way.
As readers we get swept up in the drama. The first chapter of Mark’s Gospel has a very active Jesus moving all over Galilee preaching, calling disciples, casting out demons, healing the sick and the paralytic, cleansing lepers. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus hits the ground running after his baptism and is working in high gear.
But also in that first chapter two things happen that pull Jesus away from the world.
After his baptism “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (Mark 1:12) Although the Holy Spirit had just descended upon him physically and the voice of the Father announced him as His beloved Son, Jesus does not rise from the water and begin preaching and working.
He goes off to the desert. He retreats into prayer and fasting.
It is easy to be in awe of the baptism and say, “Behold the Lamb of God” and push the humanity of Jesus to the background. But then we would be left wondering why he has wandered off.
It is important for us to keep a complete vision of Jesus in focus. Jesus needs to take himself out of the world, to remove himself from the crowds, to take himself out of the action. He needs to fast. He needs to pray in the wilderness.
He needs some time alone with the Father.
This is important for us because Jesus is our example of a perfect holy life. He tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), and he can say that with authority because he himself is perfect. We can say, “Yes, Jesus is perfect, but he is God.” Again, easy for us to forget how human he is.
Jesus sets an example for us to follow, a balance of activity and prayerful solitude. Some good zealous people fill their schedule with many spiritual activities: several ministries, Bible studies, service to the sick or the needy, spiritual events. An overloaded active schedule. It can be easy to miss the example of the subtle, quiet moments of Jesus’ life, the times where Jesus put the whole world aside for prayer, meditation and reflection. Those moments are important for us to emulate in our lives.
Some may have an opposite problem and not have an active spiritual life of works, maybe feeling a spiritual dryness or distance from God. Try removing the distractions of the world and just seeking him in quiet solitude, offering your empty self to him. Ask him to water you with the Spirit to get you through your spiritual desert.
We need to step away, recharge, reconnect with God and be renewed.
Jesus goes off to the wilderness alone after his baptism. He is gone for 40 days!
He returns strengthened in spirit with a bold acclamation that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” (Mark 1:14) He is ready to get to work. And we see him in Mark’s first chapter hard at the Father’s work.
But in Capernaum, after doing so much healing and preaching, Jesus rises very early, and he goes off to “a lonely place, and there he prayed.”
He doesn’t rise and pray in the midst of all the people to start his day. He doesn’t rise and immediately get to work.
He goes off alone to pray. He gets his quiet time with the Father, alone.
Only later, when the others have sought him out and say, "Everyone is searching for you," does he come back refreshed and renewed and say “Let’s go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (Mark 1:35)
We see the same thing again in John’s Gospel when Jesus is being followed by great multitudes who have been watching all the signs and healings he is performing. He feeds the five thousand, not just with the few barley loaves and fish, but from his own great abundance. The people are marveling at him, and he sees they want to take him by force to make him king.
And Jesus retreats. He withdraws by himself to the hillside.
When he returns he comes walking across the water. He miraculously lands the boat immediately at its destination and he is ready to get back to work. He preaches to the crowds about the Bread of Life. (John 6)
This is a pattern for Jesus’s ministry. He is preaching, teaching, healing all manner of illnesses all day long. But Jesus always takes time to retreat into quiet solitude to pray. When he returns, it is like he is starting fresh and strong. He comes forth with fortitude and certainty.
We even can see this at the start of his Passion. Jesus goes out into the garden with his disciples, but he doesn’t say, “Let’s pray together.” Jesus says, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” He takes Peter, James and John further with him, but even to them he says, “Remain here and watch with me.” And then he goes off further by himself.
At the end of that heavy and desperate time of prayer, Jesus has the strength and fortitude to move through the Passion to the Crucifixion.
It is easy to say, “Yes, but he is God, surely he had the strength and fortitude to do that,” and again push the humanity of Jesus to the background. Yet truly he was “sorrowful and troubled” and “fell on his face and prayed.” He said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” (Matthew 26:36-46) Jesus experienced a real, human struggle.
Just like Jesus, we all need time alone in prayer. We need that time, just us and our God, to find strength, fortitude and vision, to be assured and empowered in our work we do in his name. We need to commune with the Father. Alone.
Some simple ways to step out of the world
It is good for us to follow Jesus’ example. Jesus rose early and went off to pray. Schedule that into the start of your day. Wake earlier and go off into another space, away from others, and pray alone. Start your day with just you and God alone together and enter into your day renewed and refreshed by the Holy Spirit. Pray that he gives you all that you need for that day. In the evening don’t rush your prayer before falling asleep. Have it be something set apart from your day, a stepping away from the world to spend time with the Lord as a fitting day’s end in thanks and gratitude.
Take time to remove yourself from the world by retreating into Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Schedule an hour as often as you can to be with the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Use that time however the Spirit moves you, whether it be in active prayer, Scripture reading, journal writing, etc., but a portion of that time should be spent in quiet reflection and just adoration of Christ. Encounter him there and be renewed by his presence.
Take advantage of opportunities to get away on a spiritual retreat. Many places offer personal retreat space and time. Check out retreat houses, monasteries, abbeys, or any places in your area. Or even make a pilgrimage to a place you know that is far away from home.
Meditate on Scripture
Let the life of Christ, the story of salvation history or the workings of the Apostles pull you out of this world and into a world of the Spirit. Use a small line or phrase from Scripture to enter into a meditation or contemplative thinking on God. Practice lectio divina, or “divine reading’ where you enter into a conversation with God through Scripture and “listen with the ear of the heart” to what God is speaking to you.
This can mean different things to people, but the idea is to do what Jesus did, get away from the crowds, the hustle and bustle of life, the trappings of civilization and the manmade things of the world. Step away into a natural place where all you can hear is the wind or the water. It may be a trip to a seashore, up into the hills, in the mountains, by a quiet lake or even by a small stream. Just a place where you can just be. Simply be. Nothing more. Just you and God.
Consider how much time of Jesus’ life was spent walking from town to town. He spent days at a time walking. Just walk. Walk with no thought of destination. Walk without being absorbed by the world around you. Just walk and be. Walk in quiet reflection, whether it is around your neighborhood, on your lunch break, or a special place you know where you can be alone. Maybe read a Scripture passage and reflect on it as you go. Or maybe recite a rosary and meditate on the life of Christ.
The purpose of all this is that we can experience and encounter the Lord every day, but we need to make the effort in our lives to renew our connection to him. We need to be refreshed if we are to work hard. We need to be renewed if we are to offer ourselves to him. We need to be strengthened if we are to carry our crosses daily.
Take the time to quiet your heart and to soothe your soul. Set yourself apart from the world just to be with him. Let there be moments where you let the world fade away. Just be with the Lord in quiet trust.
“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
My eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
Too great or too marvelous for me
But I have calmed and quieted my soul
Like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
Like a child that is quieted is my soul
Kevin Theriault is a Lay Dominican writer, freelance journalist and photographer.
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