Prayer: Lessons from the Women
In the weeks after Easter we hear a number of accounts in which the risen Jesus encounters his somewhat perplexed and disheartened friends. These personal encounters are a key moment; it’s from these encounters that they energetically go out and proclaim the Good News and the Christian community is born. In our lives we are invited to encounter God in prayer. St. Mark (16:1-11) tells us of an encounter between “a young man, dressed in a white robe” Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Salome. This encounter can teach us something about the perplexity and paradox of our own prayer.
First we are told that the women rise early to go to the tomb, they longed to be with Jesus, something draws them to him. In our own lives, so often, we desire to be with Jesus in prayer. I very often hear people say they desire to pray. A deep part of us, sometimes inexplicable to us, draws us to prayer.
Like the women we often make all sorts of preparations – sometimes we go to prayer workshops to try and learn how to pray, we spend time in immediate preparation choosing a scripture text, a prayer place and carefully crafting silent space in our busy lives. We feel motivated by the desire to seek the Lord in prayer.
Seldom do things actually turn out as we would have hoped. We experience something very different most of the time (or at least that’s my experience!). So did the women, when they got to the tomb Jesus was not there, it was empty (sound familiar?). Despite their preparation they are met with something very different to their expectations. They, like us, had a preconceived idea of how things should be. They went armed with the traditional spices (as they had been taught). They had a preconceived pre-packed plan of what they should be doing and what should happen. Don’t we do that with prayer? Come so often with our own pre-packed plan of how and what and where?
We are also told that they talked among themselves and wondered who would roll the stone away (they were really organised!). We too can get so caught up in the minor details that we, like them, do not notice that God has taken the initiative and rolled the stone away. We like to be in control – they too thought that they were in control. God had another plan and they were about to discover something they would never have imagined possible: they would learn that Jesus is risen and not simply just go to embalm his corpse with spices!
These women experience something they were not expecting yet they are amazed. Perhaps, in our own prayer lives, that’s exactly why we struggle. God’s way of dealing with us is very different to our expectations. The most valuable lesson we could learn from these women is that God’s agenda is very different to ours and that we have to learn to be extraordinarily flexible when it comes to encountering God.
The women’s experience does not end simply with amazement. We are then told that they run from the tomb, perhaps they were put off, shocked and amazed by what they discovered. They did not understand it and a host of emotions followed. Sometimes the things we discover in prayer (about ourselves, others or God) leaves us wanting to run away. We, like them, may be tempted to run from prayer because we are put off, shocked or amazed. It may be tempting to give the whole prayer enterprise up when we discover things we don’t like or hear things we don’t want to hear. There are times when we ask the question Shall I just give up? Is this worth it?
What they do can be so like our own experience – they flee from the tomb, we might want to flee from prayer. We want to run from God and yet something in us desires God more there is such paradox and perplexity in prayer at different stages of our lives. Despite our deepest struggles we yearn for an encounter with the risen Jesus’ an encounter that will change us and give us new direction and energy. In their encounter with the “young man, dressed in a white robe” they hear words they never thought they would ever hear: he has been raised, he is not here. They are given new direction and new energy they are also sent to tell the men (who are feeling sorry for themselves locked up in fear and doubt) that Jesus is risen.
Our encounters with God become real for us only when we allow our prayer to penetrate our lives and our lives to penetrate our prayer. It is in the perplexity and paradox of our own lives that the risen Lord Jesus can work. The wishes or, for lack of a better term, agendas that we create to encounter the Lord or bring to prayer are not necessarily the confines in which the risen Lord works. When our carefully planned prayer is flooded with distractions about jobs that need to be done, people who annoy me, my anxieties or the hurts of life I should not become downcast and simply just want to give up. Distractions can become the very springboards for prayer, don’t fight distractions or become discouraged if you do not feel that the carefully pre-prayer plans have not worked out or that you have not attained the intensity of prayer you had hoped for. God can and will work despite the plans, distractions or seemingly shallow prayer.
Our yearnings and desires for God have been placed in our hearts by God. Like the post resurrection disciples we struggle to encounter Jesus, we do not always understand and things seldom go as we would have them. That’s ok, the risen Jesus knows what he is doing with us (like them) and we will hear what we thought we could never hear he has been raised, he is not here.
Henri Nouwen in The Genesee Diary tells us When we have given up the desire to be different and experienced ourselves as sinners without any right to special attention, only then is there space to encounter God who calls us by name and invites us into his intimacy. Once they have dumped the spices and run the women, empty-handed, encounter Jesus.
In our poverty the risen Jesus might amaze us most just when we are about to run empty-handed. Bring yourself to God, not as you think you should be but as you are, and allow God to amaze you in this Easter Season. Updated from 2011