Rev. Paul D. Scalia
We hear several times in the Gospels that our Lord removes Himself from the crowds and goes off by Himself. As Mark explains, this was due partly to His miracles: due to His fame, “Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mk 1:45). But fame and first-century paparazzi were not the only reasons for such seclusion. It was a common practice for Him. He would rise “a great while before day” and go to a deserted place and pray (Mk 1:35; cf. Mt 13:1; Lk 4:42; 5:16).
He taught His Apostles to do the same: “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). Hermits, monks, and nuns have imitated this removal from society throughout the Church’s history. And yet it seems a strange thing: the crowds come to Jesus for healing—and He goes off on His own? And as for us, there is a lot of work to be done. Can we really afford the luxury of getting away from it all and finding a little place in the country?
In fact, we cannot afford not to take such time as our Lord did. He was not, of course, just “getting away from it all”, as we might fashion such retreats to the country. Rather, He was going to the One Who is All—to His Father. He removed Himself from the crowds not because He had enough of them (He is not like us in that regard), but to give Himself “in prayer to God” (Lk 6:12). He retreated so that He could enter into uninterrupted conversation with His Father.
Yet the crowds would follow Him (Mk 6:33–34). Perhaps they sensed (without realizing) that it was precisely our Lord’s union with His Father, so dominant during His retreats, that drew them to Him. He brought them not just miracles nor only a message of salvation. He brought them His own personal knowledge of the Father. He brought them the very intimacy of that union.
Hermits and monks of the Church have experienced this same phenomenon. When they remove themselves from society to give themselves more completely to God, crowds follow. When Saint Anthony of Egypt went into the desert to seek holiness, he soon had people seeking him out. When Saint Benedict turned aside from Rome to seek conversion of life, he soon had a monastery. In both instances (and in hundreds like them in the Church’s history), one man’s desire for union with God led to great works for the Gospel.
The world views such seclusion as a waste of time and even selfish. Of course, unless a thing can be measured (preferably counted and deposited), the world has no use for it. No matter: the Gospel works by different standards. The first step in the work of the Gospel is union with God. Evangelization begins by first going to God and deepening our union with Him—without that, there is nothing. The crowds today, no less than any other time, desire not just a message nor even miracles. They desire—indeed, need— persons who know God. They need saints.
Not many of us have a place in the country to go and spend time in prayer. But we are all called to imitate our Lord by seeking first that intimacy with the Father. So we should carve out time and a suitable place to remove ourselves from the crowds and pray to our “Father who is in secret” (Mt 6:6). It is that conversation, that nourishment of our union with Him, that enables us to bear witness more effectively. Yes, we should study our faith and do good works. But by placing prayer first, we guarantee that when we return to the crowds, they will encounter in each of us not just someone who knows the truth and does good, but, of greatest importance, someone in union with God.
Prayer: O Lord my God, I believe in you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit... Insofar as I can, insofar as you have given me the power, I have sought you. I became weary and I labored. O Lord my God, my sole hope, help me to believe and never to cease seeking you. Grant that I may always and ardently seek out your countenance. Give me the strength to seek you, for you help me to find you, and you have more and more given me the hope of finding you. Here I am before you with my firmness and my infirmity. Preserve the first and heal the second. Here I am before you with my strength and my ignorance. Where you have opened the door to me, welcome me at the entrance; where you have closed the door to me, open to my cry; Enable me to remember you, to understand you, and to love you.
Prayer of St. Augustine of Hippo
Excerpted from “That Nothing May Be Lost” by Rev. Paul D. Scalia