And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
This verse, so early in Jesus’ public ministry, gives the first of many examples of personal private prayer in his life (the parallel version is Luke 4:42). He goes off early in the day, before anyone else is awake to notice him, to a lonely place for prayerful communion with his Father. According to early Jewish-Christian tradition, Jesus often prayed at a small grotto on the southeastern side of the Mount of Beatitudes, just across from Tabgha, the modern name for the area where he multiplied the loaves and fishes.
The Gospels, and those of St. Mark and St. Luke in particular, take note of Jesus going off for private prayer:
After the multiplication of loaves—Mark 6:46: And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
Immediately before choosing his twelve apostles—Luke 6:12: In these days he went into the hills to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God.
Before Peter’s profession of faith that Jesus is the Christ—Luke 9:18: Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, “Who do the people say that I am?”
Immediately before the Transfiguration—Luke 9:28: Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
Before teaching the Our Father—Luke 11:1: He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Before the crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane—Matthew 26:36-45; Mark 14:32-41; Luke 22:39-46.
Coming from his own experience of private personal prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to do the same:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
Such prayer of communion with God provides important spiritual sustenance to living out the Christian pilgrimage. Within such private prayer, one can gain a sensitivity to the movements of the Holy Spirit, thereby becoming alert to the ways in which God is leading one to a particular vocation, apostolate, or other task.
Imagine that as Jesus went out to pray by himself, he quietly invited you to join him in his secret place. Try to picture Jesus at prayer. Where would his attention be? What would be the expression on his face? What would his posture be? Quietly remain with him.
Then, when he finishes, imagine yourself in a conversation with Jesus about your own prayer life. Speak to him about the way in which you presently pray. Then ask him what he would look for from you. What is his goal for your private prayer? What more would he desire from you in this area of your life? How do you respond to him?
Jesus taught the Our Father immediately after an occasion of private prayer (Luke 11:1-4) and after his instruction for his disciples to pray alone (Matthew 6:5-13). Conclude this meditation with the Our Father, praying it along with Jesus.
This article is excerpted from Praying the Gospels with Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ: Jesus Launches His Ministry. Available at wau.org/books