by Fr. Jack McArdle
"No athlete is crowned unless he competes according to the rules." (2 Tim. 2-5) "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7) Pit stops have more to with car rallies than with marathons, even though the run-distance runner will require a little attention along the way-a bottle of water, a face cloth, or new shoe laces. I am not into motor rallying too much, and, so I often find the pit stops to be the most interesting! When I first saw this happening, I thought that it was almost the equivalent of dropping out, until I came to realise that every driver must have a few pit stops, to replace something there, to adjust something here, or simply to top up with gas or oil.
It would be tempting not to stop, but this would be very fool-hardly in the long run, because the car would become undrivable, and those who had stopped along the way would go swishing by, while our friend limps over to the side of the course, to let them through. If time spent in the pit stop is time 'wasted' as far as racing is concerned, it is time well-invested in the long-run, and is a necessary and essential part of the race.
As we run the race to which St. Paul refers, it is essential that we have pit stops along the way. I refer to much more than prayer here. I don't have to stop to pray! I can continue whatever I may be doing, and still have a heart that is in Prayer Mode. On the other hand, I can stop everything, go aside, and give some quality time to prayer, reflection, and meditation. If I am too busy to do this, then I'm far too busy. I can even become so preoccupied with the work of the Lord that I haven't time for the Lord of the work.
Each one of us is different. Some people are naturally contemplative, and they find it quite natural to take time out, just to sit with the Lord, check in, and listen. They are excellent 'attention-givers' when it comes to prayer. They are others-and I would have included myself among these for most of my life!---who are so busy about many things that they find it really difficult to take time out, and to be still long enough to hear anything! "Be still, and know that I am God." (Ps. 46:10).
This quality of being able to walk away from other activities, and give my full attention to God is directly concerned with justice and right living, where I 'render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mk. 12:17). It avoids the trap of turning the divine initiative into human endeavour. Prayer is really what God does when I give him time and space. It is the time when my soul gets nourished, and enables me walk with greater strength in the ways of the Lord. If I do not have a contemplative spirit, then I have to depend on the Spirit to cultivate this within me. In other words, it is not something that I myself can develop.
The apostles saw Jesus work signs and wonders. They saw him raise the dead, calm the storm, heal the leper, restore sight to the blind. Yet, when push came to pull, what did they ask him? "Master, teach us to prayer". (Lk. 11:1). Whatever it was about the way Jesus prayed, this was one thing that they would love to be able to do. Perhaps he was so obviously wrapped up with the Father at such times that those around him felt that this was a moment of great power, and something very special indeed.
Jesus himself often went off on his own, for long periods; sometimes all night, at other times very early in the morning, so that he could be alone with the Father. "And having sent the crowd away, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. At nightfall he was there alone." (Mt. 14:23). "But the news about Jesus spread all the more, and large crowds came to him to listen, and be healed of their sicknesses. As for him, he would often withdraw to solitary places to pray." (Lk. 5:15-16). What strikes me about such references---and there are several of them---is that, the busier Jesus was, the more time he took out to pray.
There is a core lesson in this for all of us, especially those of us who convince ourselves that we are far too busy to have the luxury of making such pit stops! Even taking the time out is a statement in itself. Obviously, I just cannot walk away from work whenever I feel like praying! There are questions about responsibility, justice, and common sense involved here. When I talk about dropping everything, and going aside, I refer to those times when I do have an option, I can make a choice, and the initiative is entirely mine. I'm sure, if we're honest, we can all identify such opportunities.
From what I said earlier, the pit stop is an essential part of the motor rally, and those who decide not to avail of it will never complete the race. I am not speaking of faults or breakdowns, which require immediate attention. Such cars certainly have no chance, if they do not stop; and probably little chance, even if they do. It is simply a fact of life that the car---the very best---has limitations, and the course is of such a length that types will take a ferocious toll, and will need replacement, and the tank cannot hold sufficient fuel for such a distance, if the car is not to be over-laden, and lose its accelerating power. Using the example of the pit stop to illustrate the need to come off the roundabouts from time to time, to give time to prayer, is one that begins to limp as we examine it further.
The pit stop is an extraordinary feat of team work, speed, co-ordination, and return to action. Prayer is certainly not that! I actually believe that if I do begin to take time out to pray, and I am open to the workings of the Spirit in this, those times will become more frequent, and much longer, as time goes on. In other words, I am heading in the opposite direction to the mechanics in the pit stops! The important thing is that I begin. It doesn't matter how short my first attempts are; the important thing is that I have begun what, hopefully, will become a process, and I have no idea where it might lead.
For those who are prepared to take the Christian life seriously, there is no end to the facilities available for building up, and consolidating that life. Days of Renewal, weekend Retreats, and workshops on Prayer are available in almost every region from time to time. There are adult education courses in Spirituality available to those who are free to avail of them. More and more mature Christians are beginning to avail of Spiritual Direction. After all, it is highly advisable to go for check-ups to doctors and dentists, and not wait till the harm is done.
Preventative medicine is beginning to get the attention it deserves, and, where possible, is the better course to follow. It is better to avail of the warning of the lighthouse than to have to be rescued by the life-boat! I must say that I have been very edified over the past few years, as I have witnessed so many laity taking responsibility for their prayer-life into their own hands, and no longer leaving this in the hands of priest for an hour on a Sunday morning. There is the danger of God being treated like some sort of income-tax man, where I give him an hour on Sunday, and the rest of the week is take-home money!
It is reasonable to expect that those people who are conscious of being led back to the Garden, should have a constant awareness of the significance of this journey, and how much it depends on the work of God's Spirit. In their journey through the desert, on their way back from exile, the Hebrews often complained of the hardships they endured. "Then they said to Moses, 'Were there no tombs in Egypt? Why have you brought us into the desert to die? What have you done by bringing us out of Egypt?
Isn't this what we said when we were in Egypt: Let us work for the Egyptians. Far better serve Egypt than to die in the desert." (Ex. 14:11-12). They were a stubborn and stiff-necked people, and, despite the daily manna, and water from the rock; despite the clouds protecting from the sun during the day, and fires protecting them from the cold at night, they still found reasons to complain. Whatever about their physical condition, they certainly weren't too spiritually healthy. It cannot be the same with us, however.
Let me put it this way: I am sitting alone with the Lord. I become more and more aware of his presence. I may speak to him, or I may choose to remain quiet and wait. After a while, while Jesus looks deep within my soul, he looks me straight in the eye, and he asks me a very direct question. "Tell me this now, honestly, without any attempt to cover up, to impress, or to deny: Is there anything in your live NOW that you are not sure I can take care of? Is there anything there that bothers you, that's eating you inside, that is causing you worry? Can you see from that that this is something you are not certain that We can take care of, and that includes the Father, Myself, the Spirit, and my Mother? Can you think of any reason for why this should be so? Do you think that you could do a better job on your own? Are you afraid that my solution may not be the one that you want, even if it is the better one?
If you are to travel the Way with me, you will have to begin to trust me more. You will have to be willing to be led by my Spirit. I would love to teach you the secrets of the Kingdom, like I taught the apostles. ('The secrets of the Kingdom of God have been given to you. But for those outside, everything comes in parables.'[Mk. 4:11]). It was when I brought the apostles to one side, away from the crowds, that I was able to do this, and that I taught them to pray. If you don't come aside with me, you are limiting all I want to do for you, and in you."
In earlier chapters, I spoke of travelling in convoy, as it were; being part of a Christian community. Much of my praying will normally be done within the context of that community, when we join in common worship, which can cover all the spectrums, from Eucharist, Devotions, Adoration, to Prayer Meetings. When I speak about pit stops in this chapter, however, I am not referring to any of these. I speak of personal prayer; I speak of the decision that is mine, and mine alone. Taking time out to be with the Lord is part of my personal response to my Christian vocation. This time of prayer is not something that I would like to schedule, in so far as making plans, or setting guide-lines.
Generally speaking, it is much better to keep this as spontaneous as possible, even when it does include some of the traditional prayers, such as Rosary, Chaplet of Divine Mercy, etc. An important part of this time should be given to listening. I can also use my creative imagination, as I relive particular scenes in the gospels, where I find that I myself am blind, deaf, dumb, or leprous. There is no end to the scope of the creative imagination, when I sit quietly with the Lord. The secret here is to invoke the Spirit, in the expectation that he WILL lead me, something that is the forte of the Spirit. Real prayer is what God does when I give him time and space. I am dealing with the God of Surprises, and I can have no idea where prayer might lead. The important thing is to show up. To do this is half the battle.
When I present the body, the Spirit will do the rest. Bring the body, and the mind will follow. Consider these precious times as very central to the journey back to the Garden. It is so easy to get distracted by the scenery along the road, and become less aware of what life is all about. "Watch and pray" is the advice of Jesus. Going to the Lord is like being awake and alert with him in Gethsemane. It can also seem like standing at the foot of the cross on Calvary, especially when I recite the Divine Mercy Chaplet. All things are possible, but nothing happens if I fail to keep that appointment.
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