The scene that struck me the most in the 2016 movie “Risen” was when the movie’s protagonist, a Roman soldier named Clavius, follows the risen Christ and his disciples out of Jerusalem toward Galilee. Clavius had seen Jesus die on the cross and is having difficulty believing in Christ’s resurrection. Tagging along after the group as darkness falls, Clavius sees Jesus sitting alone, and approaches. The two men sit together silently.
I remember wondering, there in the theater and then on the drive home afterward, what I would ask Jesus if I were given the opportunity to sit alone with him. I couldn’t think of a single question, and concluded that perhaps it would be enough just to be in his presence.
That thought arose again a couple weeks ago after the daily Mass reading from John 15, which quotes Jesus as saying, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.”
Now, we as a church ask for many things at every Mass: in the Eucharistic prayers we ask the Father to grant the Church peace, to guard and unite her; we pray for the health and wellbeing of our friends and family; we plead for the peace and salvation of the world. But we have only to look around to see that what we have asked for has not been done for us.
A theological response to this would be that God acts in his time –“With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day.” It’s also true that God won’t force human beings to accept peace; it will come only if all parties are willing for it to happen – “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it,” as Thomas Aquinas points out.
So, if I have no realistic hope that world peace will come about as a result of my prayers, what do I ask of God?
First of all, I will continue to pray for peace, but my request will be that God “harden not the hearts” of each person involved in conflict. This, I think, allows people the dignity of their free will, so that perhaps they will see their way clear to take a different approach. The ultimate example of this type of conversion would be St. Paul: He was on his way to Damascus, “breathing threats against the disciples of the Lord,” when Jesus appeared to him; afterward, Paul became a preeminent follower of Jesus.
If Jesus can covert the Christian-hating Saul into Paul the disciple who died for Christ, the Lord can also open the hearts of the warmongers of today, assuming they are willing to allow it.
While I’m inclined to carry on with the prayers we say at Mass and with my own private prayers for peace in the world and for intentions passed on by friends and family, it seems wasteful, in a way, to pray only for something that ultimately rests on other people.
Which leads to another memory: Years ago I read The Way of a Pilgrim, and my reaction was that it seemed extremely selfish of the book’s anonymous narrator to pray only “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” I pointed this out to a priest, who smiled and gently suggested that perhaps the pilgrim was concentrating on improving the only person he could: himself.
Bringing this lesson into the context of what I would ask for, were I ever granted the opportunity to sit with Jesus, I think my prayer would be that of the pilgrim: “Have mercy on me.” Which is a plea I already make every time I remember that I too often fail to do my part to bring about the kingdom of God, and if I concentrate on improving myself, perhaps peace will begin with me.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at email@example.com.