I was praying before the Tabernacle in my parish yesterday afternoon meditating on the Agony in the Garden. Funnily enough, I was exhausted and I was struggling with drowsiness as I read once more about how St. Peter, St. James, and St. John could not keep their eyes open as Our Lord underwent His agony in prayer before His betrayal and Passion.
Physical drowsiness and exhaustion are a part of our human experience. Everyone battles it in prayer. This drowsiness can help us to enter more deeply into the spiritual significance of what Christ was trying to teach His Apostles, namely that spiritual drowsiness deadens the soul and gives the Enemy free reign in our lives.
While Our Lord prays to perfectly unite His human will to the Father’s Divine will, he asks His disciples to remain vigilant. They are still living with considerable spiritual blindness. They do not understand what is imminent and so they slip in and out of sleep as Christ prepares for the torture and death He will suffer for their sakes and for all of mankind.
This same struggle is a part of our own spiritual lives. We often fall into sloth. Our prayer lives lose out to “more” important matters in our daily schedules. This leads us into a sort of spiritual drowsiness, which is in fact dangerous, because it opens us up to greater temptations from the Enemy, the flesh, and the world. We may forget in our busyness that we must be on guard at all times because we do not know when our own hour will come. The Enemy constantly seeks to lull us into a false sense of security.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his book Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, discusses the great importance and emphasis Christ places on the spiritual alertness that we are called to:
The summons to vigilance has already been a major theme of Jesus’ Jerusalem teaching, and now it emerges directly with great urgency. And yet, while it refers specially to Gethsemane, it also points ahead to the later history of Christianity. Across the centuries, it is the drowsiness of the disciples that opens up the possibilities for the power of the Evil One.
The reason this spiritual drowsiness is so insidious is because it creeps in slowly. We are no longer alert to the temptations we are constantly dealing with and we begin to let more and more in over time. This is a struggle for all of us in our Fallen state, which is why regular reception of the Sacrament of Confession is crucial for progressing in holiness. If Confession is not available, then a daily examination of conscience will help us to stay on top of our daily sins and failings until we can return to the Sacrament.
Pope Benedict explains what happens in this state of drowsiness:
Such drowsiness deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by the power of the Evil One at work in the world and by all the injustice and suffering ravaging the earth. In its state of numbness, the soul prefers not to see all this; it is easily persuaded that things cannot be so bad, so as to continue in the self-satisfaction of its own comfortable existence. Yet this deadening of souls, this lack of vigilance regarding both God’s closeness and the looming forces of darkness, is what gives the Evil One power in the world.
The call to remain vigilant is crucial in our spiritual lives. In a time when the ordinary means of sanctifying grace are not readily available to many of us in the way they have been for the entirety of our lives, we must remain constantly cognizant of our spiritual state. Are we slipping in our daily prayers? Are we tempted to forgo watching Sunday Mass because “it isn’t the same”? Do we sense a sort of drowsiness overtaking us as we progress through this exile?
We will all experience periods of weakness and temptation during this period of waiting. It is true for the entirety of our lives. Given that this Holy Week is unlike any other we in the Western world have faced, it is essential that we seek to draw closer to Christ. We must rouse ourselves from slumber and wait and watch with Him.
We must also be on guard against assuming that we are strong enough to endure any temptations this period away from the Sacraments may bring. Our strength is in Christ. It’s important to remember that we are all capable of incredible darkness, including forms of sloth that could tempt us away from the Church. This reminder of our weaknesses helps us to cling to Him even more.
During this period of trial and exile, we must dig deep spiritually and find new ways to enter into communion with Christ in our private prayer and with our families. There is a very real danger that we may all come back to smaller parishes when we are finally able to attend public Masses again. Let us pray that we may not undergo the test, but if we must, that Christ will give us the strength to cling to Him regardless of what struggles we face in the coming weeks and months.