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Staying Awake

 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38

Mindfulness is a popular buzzword these days. Be present to the moment. Be here now. Seize the day. We have many contemporary ways of saying what Jesus told his disciples 2000 years ago – keep awake! In the scripture from Mark, quoted above, Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with a few of his disciples after the Last Supper. He goes off by himself to pray and tells his friends to stay awake. He returns a short while later to find them asleep. He wakes them and again requests that they remain awake. Once again he goes off to pray, coming back a third time to find them asleep. At this point, the temple police have arrived to arrest him and begin the events that led to his crucifixion the next morning. In the context of this story, we are the sleepy disciples.

I do not believe Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake because he was lonely. He did not make the request so they would protect or hide him from his imminent fate. Rather, he wanted them to witness what was happening in the moment, to be present to it and see it, to keep awake to the details of what was happening around them. It was a seminal moment for each of them, personally and collectively, and he wanted them to experience it in the fullness of their being. One of the lessons we learn from difficult times is that we must go through our challenges in order to grow beyond them. To go through something requires that we be unwaveringly present to it, whatever it is. When we seek to avoid an experience, we automatically set the wheels in motion for a repeat occurrence. Only when we have acknowledged and accepted what is before us can we move on to something new. In order to acknowledge and accept what is, we must be awake.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting we stop sleeping. Rather, Jesus reminds us to pay attention during our waking hours – to the beauty around us, yes, but also to those people and events we find unpleasant, undesirable, or painful. Jesus understands how difficult it is for us; after all, he was human, too. While the text suggests his frustration with the disciples’ inability to stay physically awake for his last moments of freedom on earth, he knows and verbalizes that the “flesh is weak.” In spite of its inherent willingness, the spirit cannot override the tired flesh, at least not for long. The needs of the flesh are too powerful.

We stay awake, we become present to the moment by paying close attention to the information coming through our senses – what our eyes see and our ears hear. Jesus often pointed something out for his followers to examine, saying “Let those with eyes see.” Many of his healing episodes involve blindness – physical blindness, yes, but these stories are also metaphorical pointers a more widespread type of blindness to whatever is before us. Opening ourselves to the full experience of what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell unlocks the doorway into the present moment. Daydreaming about the future and regretting the past are fast-pass tickets out of the present, as is avoiding what we know requires our attention.

Taking ourselves out of the moment by any of the myriad of enticing ways to do so is like praying with one eye open. We tend not to trust the goodness or completeness of the moment any more than we trust God to protect and provide for us. As a result, we keep one eye open when we pray, and we avert our gaze from the present with an endless stream of diversions. Human nature, being what it is, makes it difficult not to do that! Jesus, however, calls us to transcend our ordinary human nature, not because there is anything wrong with being human, but because our human moments are beautiful, intense, intimate, and rich. Not only do we miss those powerful experiences when we stray from the moment, but God, experiencing through us, does as well. These experiences are only available in human bodies, so it is doubly important to embrace them as the opportunities arise. Jesus’ admonition to keep awake is an invitation to fully experience our humanity, savoring and living every beautiful and painful moment while we are able to do so.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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