Solitude, compassion, community:
Walking in the footsteps of Jesus
Solitary prayer is the most emphasised aspect of Jesus’ prayer life in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark and Luke all provide examples in their Gospels of Jesus frequently withdrawing to a solitary or deserted place to pray. Jesus teaches the central importance of silent, intimate communion with God in solitude.
The contemplative practice of Christian meditation has its foundation in the teachings and prayer life of Jesus.
“To be contemplative as Christ is contemplative” said Rowan Williams, “is to be open to all the fullness that the Father wishes to pour into our hearts. With our minds made still and ready to receive, with our self-generated fantasies about God and ourselves reduced to silence, we are at last at the point where we may begin to grow.”
And our growth is never separate from our relationships with others.
The Gospel writers skilfully record a pattern of solitary prayer, engaged compassion and the creation of community, presenting these aspects of Jesus’ life alongside each other like beams of light radiating from a single source, harmonious, inseparable.
Early in Luke’s Gospel, we hear how Jesus would withdraw to deserted places to pray (Luke 5:16). Luke very carefully places Jesus’ withdrawal to solitude between two stories of healing, and these stories of healing are themselves placed between stories of Jesus forming a community as he invites people to follow him. A little later in Luke’s Gospel, we are told how Jesus spends a night in prayer alone on a mountain before he chooses the twelve apostles (Luke 6:12-13).
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus withdraws in a boat to a deserted place after he hears of the death of John the Baptist. The crowds soon find out where he has gone and follow him. And when Jesus sees the vast crowd, he is moved deeply with compassion and heals the sick (Mt 14:13-15).
As evening falls, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowds away so they can buy food for themselves in nearby villages. But Jesus replies, “They have no need to go away; you give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16). Then follows the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes – the miracle of the compassionate sharing of resources, so no one goes hungry.
When everyone had been fed, Jesus told his disciples to take a boat and go before him to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. As soon as he had dismissed the crowds, Jesus ascended the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.
We see the same pattern at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Waking early before dawn, Jesus leaves his companions and goes to a deserted place to pray. Knowing what Jesus would be doing, Simon and the others go to find him and tell Jesus that everyone is looking for him. Jesus immediately suggests they should go to the nearby villages, where he can teach and heal, because this is his purpose for coming (Mk 1:35-39).
Christian meditation is an expression of solidarity, which blossoms in compassion, in community, in ever deepening relationship.