Unless you somehow have a foot outside your culture, the culture will swallow you whole. The Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan wrote that, and it’s true too in this sense: unless you can drink in strength from a source outside yourself, your natural proclivities for paranoia, bitterness and hatred will invariably swallow you whole.

The disciples in Luke’s Gospel understood this. They approached Jesus and asked him to teach them how to pray because they saw him doing things that they did not see anyone else doing. He was able to meet hatred with love, to genuinely forgive others, to endure misunderstanding and opposition without giving in to self-pity and bitterness, and to retain within himself a centre of peace and non-violence. This, they knew, was as extraordinary as walking on water, and they sensed that he was drawing the strength to do this from a source outside him, through prayer.

They knew they themselves were incapable of resisting bitterness and hatred, and they wanted to be as strong as Jesus and so they asked him: “Lord, teach us to pray.” No doubt they imagined that this would simply be a question of learning a certain technique. But, as the Gospels make clear, linking to a divine source outside ourselves isn’t always easy or automatic, even for Jesus, as we see from his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane, his Agony in the Garden.

Jesus himself had to struggle mightily at times to ground himself in God, as we see from his prayer in Gethsemane. His struggle there is described as an “agony”, and this needs to be carefully understood.

“Agony” was a technical term used at the time for athletes. Before entering the stadium or arena for a contest, athletes would first work their bodies into a sweat, a warm lather, an agony, to make their muscles warm and ready for the contest. The Gospels tell us that Jesus also worked himself into a sweat, except in his case he sweated blood as he readied himself in his heart for the contest, the test, he was about to enter: his Passion.

And what was that contest? The test he was readying himself for wasn’t, as it is commonly believed, an agonising over the decision whether to let himself be crucified or to invoke divine power and save himself from this humiliation and death. That was never the issue in his struggle in Gethsemane. He had long before accepted that he was going to die. The question was how: how would he die, in love, or in bitterness?

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