"Watch and pray." Matthew 26:41
The words I have chosen for my text today were spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ to His three disciples - Peter, James, and John - in the Garden of Gethsemani. Entering that garden of sorrow with the three whom He had chosen as His companions at that awful hour, He said to them: "Stay you here, and watch with me." And when, returning from His agony and prayer, He found those three asleep, His words of reproach were: "What! are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour with me? Peter, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour! Watch, and pray that you enter not into temptation." And at last, when the time of His prayer and agony, and of His disciples' sleep was over, "Rise," said He, "Rise, pray that you enter not into temptation."
Now what did our Lord mean by the word "Watch"? When He told Peter, James, and John to watch, and reproached them for not watching, what did He mean by the word so often and variously repeated? He meant, by that word, to tell them to keep awake and not to fall asleep. And why, since nighttime was the time for sleep? It was in order that they might pray, and by prayer escape the temptation which He knew was at hand. "Watch, and pray that you enter not into temptation. . . . Behold, he that will betray me is at hand."
Now, let us at once follow out that lesson, that sad lesson of Gethsemani. Peter, James, and John, did not keep awake, did not watch as Jesus told them, but slept. Three times did their Master, leaving His own struggle and prayer, rising from His sweat of Blood, come to them and rouse them, telling them to keep awake and pray; and three times did they give in to their drowsiness and fall asleep again. And of course, then, they did not pray. Sleeping men do not pray. And because they did not pray they did not resist the temptation that was at hand.
The sleep was still in their eyes when the tempter was on them. He slept not: he watched; and, in the dark hour came, with lanterns and torches and a great crowd, with arms, and clubs, and sticks, to apprehend Jesus. It was the hour of temptation, and the drowsy disciples were not prepared for it. They made only a show of fight. One, the halfsleeping Peter, struck with his sword, but struck wildly, and only cut off a servant's ear. And that done - fugerunt omnes - they fled away, every one of them. An hour more, and one of the sleepers in the Garden, now terribly wide awake, is cursing and swearing in his denial of Jesus.
There is the lesson of the Garden. Instead of watching and praying, they slept and did not pray; and so when temptation came, as it did come quickly on them, all of them fell, and one of them into the most fearful and repeated sin.
And I think this drowsiness must have been habitual. Our Lord's warning to them to keep awake and pray would seem to point to this. But there is other evidence of their habits of sleep. You remember that on another occasion Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him when He went apart to pray. He took them into a high mountain, and He was transfigured before them. The Gospel tells us of that Transfiguration. But it did not tell us of one circumstance of that scene on Mount Thabor.
St. Luke is the only Evangelist who mentions that Peter, James, and John, when they got to the top of the mountain, "were heavy with sleep;" and, as they did afterwards in the Garden, they slept while Jesus was praying. And as He prayed, and while they slept, He was transfigured. Then waking up, they saw His glory, the shining face and glittering raiment. But, mark, they had already lost some of that glorious vision, all of which they would have witnessed had they watched and prayed, as indeed they came to the mountaintop to do.
This time, it is true, no temptations came; but it was one of the acts that confirmed them in that habit of sleeping at time of prayer - a habit that led in the end to their cowardice and sin.
Very different was the habit of their Lord and Master. We read how He used to spend the night in prayer. He preached watching, and He practiced it. In the twenty-first chapter of St. Luke we read that He preached: "Watch you, praying at all times:" and in the very next verse we read that having spent the day in teaching, He used to go out at night and remain on Mount Olivet, that mount on the slope of which is the Garden of Gethsemani, where, as St. Luke tells us, it was His custom to go, that He might watch and pray.
The Church followed the example of her Founder. Vigils, or watches through the night, were, like the fasts, part of the public discipline of the first centuries. In the course of time the abuses incident on the gathering of large crowds at night caused that custom to be suppressed. But the word "vigil", still remains, reminding us of the night of watching and prayer that preceded the greater feasts.
In Ireland we still preserve the pious custom of watching by the bodies of the dead. We call it waking, that is, keeping awake. And you know why we wake: it is that we may pray. Watch and pray, then, when you go to these wakes. Wakeful prayer is ever pleasing to God. But guard against those abuses which have, in other lands, obliged the Church to stop those wakes, and which, alas! are not unknown even here. Do not forget this, then, dear friends. Wake, and pray; do not wake and drink, or wake and gossip in the house of death; but wake and pray.
It is kind for us to be watchers. St. Patrick left it as one of his blessed traditions. His four hours on the bare floor should be a reproach, if it cannot be a model to be imitated. He spent the greater part of the night in prayer, watching and praying for his people. And even now, in every religious rule, watching is a part of the discipline of the monastery and of the convent. Monks rise at dead of night to watch and pray. And nearer still, have not you, who live in this town, sometimes heard, at five o'clock in the bleak winter morning, the convent bell summoning the nuns to watch and pray? And has the thought of these Sisters, rising thus every morning to spend those hours in prayer, never brought a pang of self reproach to you, who perhaps find eight o'clock too early to hear Mass?
Let us then, dear brethren, with these lessons and examples before us, make our resolutions in regard to watching. Such resolutions are particularly fitting now, forLent is soon upon us . Lent is a time of penance, of bodily penance: it is a time when, in St. Paul's words, we chastise our bodies and bring them into subjection.
There are two things that these bodies of flesh demand and long for: food and sleep. By fasting we deny them food, by watching we deny them sleep. "Now" - as the Church declares in the words of St. Paul, at the opening of the Advent penance - "now is the hour for us to rise from sleep." And so it is, in the true and traditional spirit of this coming season of penance and prayer that the custom is here preserved of having, during Lent, a Mass in this cathedral, very early in the morning. And a moving sight that Lenten morning Mass is, that Watchers' Mass: a sight to thank God for.
God bless those watchful children of penance who, with such patient regularity, throng the streets of this town in the gray light of early morning. God bless them as they fill this great church when there is scarcely light enough in it to see their crowds. Yes, that is the message of the early bell that rouses so many of you from your sleep. Watch and pray: watch, pray. Rise and come to the Watchers' Mass. It is hard to rise; it is more pleasant to sleep than to watch; but still the Lenten bell tolls out: "Watch, and pray that you enter not into temptation." It is a call to do penance. Rise, then, in the name of God, rise in the strength of the sign of the Cross, rise and come to Mass.
And not in Lent alone should we watch and pray. "Watch, and pray at all times," preached our Divine Lord; and since temptation is ever near at hand, we should ever prepare ourselves by prayer; and we cannot pray unless we watch. Watching, then, means rising in the morning, rising to pray: praying in the evening, lest we sleep instead of praying. That is exactly what I mean by telling you to watch and pray. I wish, dear brethren, I could tell you all I feel on this matter of rising in time for morning prayer or morning Mass.
I believe that slothful habits in the morning hours are the source of fearful evils to souls. I believe that countless souls are giving way to temptation every day who would resist that temptation if only in the morning they had watched and prayed - that is, if only they had sacrificed say one half hour's, even one quarter of an hour's slothful sleep, and had conquered themselves and risen to prayer.
Oh, who shall tell the sad record of hurried, unfinished prayers, of Masses lost, of good resolutions broken, of graces never gained, of lives that might have been saintly lives brought down to lowest levels, for the sake of half an hour's sleep in the morning! I do not touch the question of bodily health, though the greatest medical authorities of every age have told, and still tell us, that more than seven hours for most constitutions, and eight for some, is actually injurious, and as truly intemperate as excess in eating or drinking.
I do not press that, for I am here to plead for your souls' salvation and not for your bodily health. But this I do press - this question: Is half an hour's sleep at the end of a good night's rest worth a Mass? Is it worth that time spent in leisurely morning prayer and preparation for the temptations of the day? Is the time better employed in sleep than it would be in spiritual exercises? Will your day be happier for that extra sleep than it would be with that extra prayer? Oh, the Devil, the World, and the Flesh cry out at once, Sleep, and do not pray. The Devil, ever watching, is sure of a victory over sleepers: when Peter, James, and John fell, he has a well-grounded confidence in the power of sleep. Sleep on, says the Devil; time enough to say your prayers in the course of the day.
Sleep on, says the World; or if you rise, let it be for pleasure not for prayer. I will allow the sportsman to watch, I will allow the business man to watch - these may rise as early as they like; but the Christian must not watch and' pray, must not get up early that he may have sufficient time for his morning prayer. Sleep on, says the World; time enough for prayer; the day is long. Sleep on, says the Flesh; I must have my sleep. Why do you worry this poor body? I am comfortable, and without trouble: the time for that will come soon enough. I am not well; I should not be well if I kept early hours; I cannot stand the morning air, I am sure I cannot; I once caught cold going to Mass!
Ah, brethren, you see through it all plainly enough! How many colds have you caught when watching in pursuit of pleasure? Have you then so carefully measured your sleep, and been concerned so for your health? Will you give in to the Devil, the World, and the Flesh when they say to you: "Sleep on, and never mind your prayers"? or will you hear and obey the word of Jesus Christ, your loving Master and Model, when He says to you: "Watch and pray"? This is, I know, your answer: - Yes; we will watch and pray. Whatever has been our custom in the past, we are determined now to rise in time for morning Mass, when that is possible - but at least for leisurely morning prayer. We will not run the risk of yielding to temptation and of being plunged for ever into hell, for the sake of our morning's sleep.
The time for rest has not yet come, dear brethren, but it is not far off. If we are weary with our labour and our watching now, let us look forward to our everlasting rest. In the Office of Lent we read these words of hope: "May it not be in vain for you that you rise in the morning before the light: because the Lord has promised a crown to those that watch." God grant us so to watch now, and watching, so to pray, that we may soon see that day of rest! Grant us, 0 Lord, eternal rest; may we rest in peace. Amen!
Adapted from...Sermons 1877-1887
by Fr Arthur Ryan
President of St. Patrick's College
St. Patrick's College, in 1992, ceased to be a Seminary.