We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
WILLED SOLITUDE AND FORCED ISOLATION
St Anselm of Bec wrote:
Lord, let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you; let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.
Solitude and isolation; searching for Jesus and finding him; prayer as the beginning of all that we do and say; the healing that we can offer others by our being moved deeply at their reaching out to us – a very full programme in these few verses.
Inviting the Holy Spirit to come and write the words of Scripture on our hearts we read and pray with the closing verses of the first chapter of St Mark’s Gospel. Mark offers us a profound contrast – the choice to withdraw so that our solitude is not an existential loneliness, and the withdrawal which is sometimes forced upon us with the possibility of devastating results.
The image of someone rising before dawn, while night still clings to the earth and all is quiet, while the world has not yet taken its first yawning blink at the rising sun and the daylight, welcome or unwelcome, may be reasonably unfamiliar to most of us. But not to a monastic. And not to many service persons who make sure our lives roll smoothly through daily comings and goings. And not to Jesus. Despite all that he must do, in encountering men and women known and unknown to him, who demand his absolute and full attention, who come seeking an answer to their struggles and difficulties, Christ still rises to pray before anything else stirs. Before he does anything else, Jesus seeks out quiet and solitude to stand with all his being in the presence of his Father who is present to him. As God his prayer is already perfect and complete because prayer in all of us is, at its deepest and purest point, God within us. But as a human person, Jesus must still create those conditions which allow him, in flesh and blood, with anxieties and thoughts, to create space and time to pray.
A number of things are suggested to us about our prayer following Jesus’ example here. Each calls for some shift in our own lives, both in our conscious attitude to prayer, our interior disposition, and the practical steps we take to allow prayer to be part of our lives.
What is the best time of day for me to pray? Interestingly, St Benedict in his Rule sees the early morning, and especially the hours before the dawn breaks, as the time when monks approach prayer most effectively. It is the time when a stillness and quiet lie heavy around us, and, with little noise or sounds to disturb us, and no work as yet to be done in community to think about or carry out, the only and most important work can be attended to – the Work of God which is prayer in the community of the brethren, and the work of lectio divina, which is prayer in the community of the Trinity. To enter effectively into our prayer we always need to consider the practicalities of time and place. Time when I am not robbed of the energy to bring myself fully to this moment of desired encounter. Place which is conducive to the living out of this desire. This takes planning on my part, trial and error perhaps, until I find the time which feels right for me, and the place – in home, in a church, in a place which is free from distracting things, people and sounds – which is a space dedicated to my opening to the One who awaits my turning to Him.
Jesus’ prayer at this pre-dawn moment is essentially about encounter. Again, we don’t have the words which Jesus speaks, nor know the feelings with which he approaches this being with the Father. And yet it must always be framed within those extraordinary words which the Father addresses to Jesus in Jordan River at the baptism – ‘You are my Son, the Beloved’.
If our prayer must be anything, and must start at any place and finish at any place, it must be a response to this word addressed to you by the Father – ‘You are my beloved’.
The disciples are pictured searching for Jesus – and they tell him, and us, that everyone is searching for him (verse 36)! This is difficult to accept today – perhaps not everyone is searching for Jesus, but everyone is searching for something, or someone, to complete them. Oftentimes this is not another person, but precisely themselves. For many, it is the only search which matters, which has meaning. But, like many searches, it can be disappointing, unfulfilling, and ultimately, never-ending.
St Paul, speaking to the people of Athens on the Areopagus, and recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, speaks about the Unknown God whom the Athenians acknowledge and give place to. Perhaps at our deepest being our search is for ‘unknown’ and yet the ‘unknown’ is always hidden in Christ, and he is in God. For Simon and his companions, at that moment, Jesus wasn’t where they expected him to be. His absence, so it appeared, took them by surprise. Perhaps their eventually finding him took them by surprise! But they found him, not because they knew where to look, but because they had the desire to find him. Once such a desire overtakes us Christ’s presence can become obvious, and his being with us is revealed.
Begin your search by acknowledging the profound desire, which is the foundation of all that you do and say, to find Christ. That desire is already his clue to you that he wishes you to find him!
Very simply, if Jesus’ sole mission is to proclaim the message (of the gospel, verse 38), then it must be ours too. Here is a major moment in my own discipleship realisation – does the Gospel run through my entire life mission so that, when all else is said and done, it’s my single driving force, the point from which I begin and the point to which I aim? How might that shape me and be a source for my own daily conversion? What stumbling blocks and obstacles clutter my life and prevent this from happening?
Jesus’ chosen solitude, illustrated in these short verses, reveals the source of his own authenticity and integrity – all flows from his own prayer. His solitude is never loneliness but always, on the contrary, communion.
The isolation which we meet next is not chosen solitude (verses 40-45). The man who has suffered from leprosy is, because of his disease, subject to a separation and isolation which is not of his making. Not simply his complaint but more the reaction of his fellow brothers and sisters, has robbed him of status, belonging, identity and community. He is no longer part of the social or religious milieu which once had been unquestioned. He has no family, no livelihood, no place which gives him worth. Can we imagine how that must feel? Or perhaps that is precisely how we might feel? Or indeed, perhaps that is sometimes how we make others feel?
Whatever our link to this story and this man Christ’s intervention is wonderfully restorative. And he reaches out and touches this man because he is moved by his pleading from the very depths of his own being. He doesn’t feel sorry for him in some patronising way, but rather his compassion for the man makes a total embrace of his reality. It’s clear that Jesus will, one day, experience this man’s isolation, abandonment, physical brokenness, social and religious condemnation.
Men and women who are around us, suffering isolation and rejection, speak to us of our own reality and ask us to recognise that reality. It’s a reality which describes in vivid terms dependence and interdependence, acceptance and charity. St Bernard says this about charity, love – that it is the glue which holds a community together. Once we forget that love must lie behind all that we do and be the end of all that we do, we rob our communities of the glue which holds us together.
Notice, briefly, that in cleansing him Jesus gives the man back both his integration into his believing community – he must go and do what Moses prescribes in the Law – and his integration into society – even though Jesus warns him not to broadcast his healing the man can’t help but tell others about what has happened. The effect is extraordinary – more people than ever set out in search of him – exactly what had happened when he withdrew to pray.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-