Every least detail of the Law having been carried out by our Blessed Saviour at the Last Supper, He washed the feet of His Disciples, lingering no doubt lovingly and sorrowfully over those of Judas; and, mindful of the promise made by the Lakeshore, He instituted the Sacrament of love. When every sacred rite was over, "a hymn being said they went forth unto the mount of Olives." When the tones of that sublime act of thanskgiving had died upon their lips they walked out into the moonlit road, and our Saviour began His journey of sorrow which before set of sun on the next day was to end with the shedding of His Blood on Mount Calvary. There are some commentators who think that the prophetic warnings of our Lord that night were uttered on this journey from the Cenacle to Gethsemani, but Saint Luke seems to place these events before the departure from the supper chamber.
The evening is cold and chilly, as it usually is in March in Jerusalem even after a comparatively warm and dry day. The Paschal moon in all its fulness is lighting the narrow streets through which they are silently passing on towards the city wall. As the Temple gates will be opened at midnight, the people are already astir preparing for the festival. Our Lord and His Apostles, moving rapidly through the streets, can perhaps see the lights flickering in the porches and colonnades of the Temple, and hear the tramp of moving feet, which doubtless the Apostles attribute to the gathering of the early worshippers, the while our Blessed Saviour Himself knows that it is His enemies who, it may be under the leadership of Judas, are getting ready with the soldiers to go to the Garden and apprehend Him.
Their way stretched most probably through Ophel, which lies south of the Temple, and out through the gate in the southeastern angle of the wall into the valley of Josaphat. This is the last time our Blessed Saviour will pass through the Sacred City, the city He loved so well and over which but a few days previously He wept, a free Man. When He enters it again, His hour will have come and He will be a prisoner in the hands of His bitter enemies. Willingly He is going to meet those who are thirsting for His death, traveling over the same road by which David hurried away from his ungrateful son, Absalom, anxious for his father's throne and his father's life. Where our Lord and His Apostles are passing David sent Sadoc back with the Ark saying: "Carry back the Ark of God into the city; if I find grace in the sight of the Lord, He will bring me again, and He will show me it and His tabernacle." Only an hour ago our Blessed Saviour had given His Body and His Blood to His Apostles, and they, together with their successors, were for all time to keep that Blessed Food in the Tabernacle for the strengthening of the children of men. This gift was His last gift of love, His final testimony of affection before going forth to die at the ninth hour on the morrow.
Shortly after nine o'clock our Lord and His Apostles are probably walking silently in the shadow of the great city wall towards the garden. It is not easy to imagine what must have been the feelings of His loved ones, accompanying their Master at that hour of the night. The stillness which hung over the valley even at the short distance from the city, the dark shadows of the high wall flung out over the ravine and the dried brook, the stunted vegetation, the light making its way through the branches and moving leaves of the olive trees, the calmness and almost unnatural silence which reigned about them, broken only by the stumbling of their own footsteps, all these circumstances must have deeply affected the spirits of the simple Galileans.
There had that night been a solemnity about the Master such as they had never witnessed before. His words and His mysteries had touched the deepest depths of their affection, and so they followed Him anxiously and with a feeling of awe as He walked with bowed head and broken heart to the first sad scene of the morrow's tragedy. About one hundred and fifty feet from the garden our Lord turned and addressed His Apostles, as the Scripture tells us. He said to them: "Sit you here till I go yonder and pray." These words were spoken to eight of the eleven who were with Him; for from what follows it is clear that Peter, James and John accompanied the Master into the garden, for we read in Saint Mark: "And He taketh Peter, James and John with Him."
"Pray, lest you enter into temptation," He gently and lovingly warned them all, as with His chosen three He separated from the rest. Sadly did they need to pray at that hour for the shadows of a great storm were fast thickening about them. They were that night to be tested to the breaking point. His words of warning spoken so shortly before must have been still ringing in their ears: "You will all be scandalized in My regard this night; for it is written: 'I will strike the Shepherd and the sheep shall be dispersed.'" They were astonished indeed at the suggestion of any unfaithfulness on their part, and rejected the thought of even the possibility of their deserting Him. Peter, who was to prove the weakest, was loudest and most emphatic in his protests of steadfast and sincere loyalty.
Our Lord, however, had listened in mournful silence to their protests and their vows. But now on parting from them for the struggle which was to begin, for the battle He was soon to fight, His love dictated a renewal of the warning. Possibly the sounds which reached Him from the city, and the moving lights in the Temple porches suggested the injunction, "Pray lest you enter into temptation." This same command was to be given later to the sleeping three when they were visited during the long hours of the agony under the olive trees in Gethsemani. The warning was to go unheeded, the suggestion of prayer necessary for their steadfastness was to be neglected, and so when the hour of trial came they were found wanting. When the time for loyalty arrived, they turned their backs upon Him and fled from Him in fear of His enemies. Those who a few hours before had protested that they would be true to Him, that no danger would shake their constancy, no temptation weaken their allegiance, these few men abandoned Him and left Him in the hands of those who were seeking His life. They had neglected to pray, and their poor weak wills gave way shamefully in the moment when they were put to the test.
How different would be the story of our spiritual lives, if there were more prayer in them! The life of the soul without prayer is like the life of the body without food. The body without nourishment gradually grows weak and finally dies of starvation. So the soul without its spiritual nutriment grows inert, listless, frail, and if temptation comes spiritual death results. If our higher aims become blurred, if nobler motives no longer stir us to brave deeds, if the spiritual vision of other days becomes clouded and our wills feeble, if the relish for divine things grows poor, if meditation is distasteful and neglected and our attractions to the low and gross things of earth become more alluring, and our whole spiritual fibre seems to relax and we are dull to lofty motives and to Heavenly impulses, we shall find that the reason is because prayer and union with God are slipping out of our lives.
To use the figure of Holy Writ, the land of our spirit is becoming desolate because we do not think in our hearts, because we do not from time to time kneel before the Tabernacle strengthening our spiritual vision and energizing our enfeebled wills by dwelling in prayer on those spiritual principles and truths which are the food and nourishment of the soul, and are seen so clearly and realized so vividly under the light of the sanctuary lamp. As well try to see on a dark night without a light, as well try to run our trolleys without the current speeding through the wires, as well try to breathe and keep life in the body without oxygen as to lead a prayerless spiritual life. A prayerless spiritual life is a contradiction in terms.
Prayer is needed not only to keep our souls alive but also to help us to cope with the obstacles which daily confront us and to withstand our enemies both within and without. Our inclinations gravitate to that which is low. Our vision is short-sighted, our wills are weak, the world and its attractions are dazzling and fascinating. What hope then will there be in hours of temptation, unless we prepare ourselves for the struggle by fortifying ourselves by fervent, habitual prayer! We read much nowadays about preparedness because of possible dangers which many imagine are not far distant, but no preparation against a foreign foe can be as necessary as the preparation which the soul must make against the temptations that continually confront it. Small wonder then, that our Blessed Saviour realizing so vividly the approach of His enemies, and knowing full well the timidity of His simple followers in the presence of Priests and Pharisees, small wonder then, I say, that He bade them pray.
Had they followed the wishes of His loving and sorrowing Heart how different had been the story of that sad night! How different, too, the story of the dead years of our lives had we heeded this same teaching of our Lord, and had we in the past prepared by fervent prayer against the temptations that assailed us! As it has been in the past, so shall it be in the future. If our days are empty, giddy, worldly, selfish and comfort-seeking, with more thought of frivolity than of faith, if we are more frequent at the theatre than at the altar, more concerned about the society of the world than about the society of the Saints, more solicitous about politics and even graft than about sanctifying grace and prayer, then we can expect that in the hour of temptation we shall show ourselves selfish cowards and turn our backs upon the Master who died for us.
- from The Mountains of Myrrh, by Father John O'Rourke