Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I go over there and pray." And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matt 26:36–41)
Spiritual fitness requires trained bodies. Wanting something is not enough; you have to be capable of doing what you want. It is not hard to grant Peter, James, and John the benefit of the doubt here in regards to their intentions. For the third time they have followed Jesus where the others have not. They have seen him raise the dead (Mark 5:35–43); they have seen him transfigured before their very eyes (Matt 17:1–8). They are willing to follow, but in some significant way they are incapable what they are willing to do.
Is anything more difficult than staying awake and alert when you are dead tired? Watching a movie after a long day, or keeping military watch in the third hour, or driving through the Panhandle of Texas in the middle of the night – at times such as these, who hasn't felt the unbearable weight of sinking eyelids and the dense fog filling a weary mind? It is not an issue of desire at these critical moments; in fact, the desire is usually pointed in quite the right direction. But like one who overexerted himself during the day or who got too little sleep in the days before, these disciples feel the toll of previous choices. They cannot counteract the inexperience that comes from infrequent attempts to hold attention in difficult circumstances. Their bodies are not fit to the task.
Jesus was fit. He went off constantly to pray on his own. He prayed through the night with regularity. Here at the end, he is not summoning up some superhuman will to press on through the night in prayer. Rather, he has practiced attuning his body to prayer, holding his mind in rapt attentiveness, channeling his energy in singular devotion. His trained body gives boundless space for this tremendous sorrow. His flesh is willing when his spirit is meek.
What does he desire here in his last full night of prayer? Above all, obedience to his Father, whose consolation he seeks. But he also desires the intimacy of his most intimate companions. There is no greater intimacy than to share in the deepest sorrow of someone else. He asks them to draw near to this sorrow, to be attentive to his pain and to stay with him. Yet their eyelids are heavy, their minds fog over, and their bodies succumb to the pressure of sleep.
In order to remain fully attentive to someone who slowly pours out their soul to you in an intimate conversation, your body leads the way. Upright posture, firmly planted feet, squared shoulders, inclined head, alert eyes – this is how the body makes space to receive what is being given, to hold focus on the one speaking. Peter, James, and John slunk down, they relaxed their muscles, they nodded off. They show signs of being unpracticed in the art of attentiveness, and they are limited in their capacity for compassion.
Their spirit is willing but their flesh is weak. Jesus admonishes them and instructs them to pray so that they may not enter into temptation (v. 41), then he hastens back into prayer for a second time. He returns again to find them sleeping again, so he leaves them to pray a third time. Back and forth, from his disciples to his Father, Jesus moves. He sees his disciples weakness and moves in sorrow back to his Father. His most intimate companions remain in place as he forward into prayer. As they sleep, he makes that trek alone. The temptation of which he warns them is captured in their bodies; bodies that do not move to the Father. The temptation is to stay put, to fall victim to inertia, to sink down underneath the gravity of habitual inactivity.
Jesus makes the journey they will not make – or rather, cannot make. They must become capable of it. But even as their bodies rebel in disobedience, Jesus comes back to them as they sleep. He is not inattentive to them, he does not lose sight of them, he does not neglect them. In his prayer, he carries their sleeping bodies to the Father. He who asked them to remain with him in his sorrow makes room in his sorrowful state for their wellbeing, even and especially when they can't care for themselves, let alone for him. He is attentive and therefore compassionate.
Like a mountain climber who builds strength and endurance from scaling smaller peaks so as to become capable of the greater ones, these disciples whose legs are weary and whose spirits are betrayed by their unfit bodies, must yet begin to move from sluggishness to deliberateness in the journey to the Father. They will not be capable of an entire night of prayer all at once. It begins with an hour, or maybe just 15 minutes. They must begin with these smaller peaks, training their bodies to hold attention in shorter periods so as to become capable of longer ones. Only thus will they become ready for the final temptation, where the pressure to remain in place and succumb to sleep is greatest. By moving habitually towards the Father, by making preceding decisions that keep them ready, they will walk on their own in the way that Jesus has already walked for them. They will walk in him. They will remain not in themselves, but in him. They will watch, they will pray.
Prayer: Jesus, teach us how to pray.