Times of crisis can become a doorway to prayer.
If I may, I have a confession to make – over the years, my prayer has become lazier and lazier… I am referring to my personal prayer. Many years ago, I used to talk to God the way I do with any other person, tell him things – and if I had decided to spend half an hour praying, I would find enough things to tell him to fill this span of time. When I say that my prayer has become lazy, I mean that increasingly, instead of using my own words, I take sentences from Scripture that have resonated with me and simply repeat them, in prayer - nothing else. I find that, like poetry, Scripture says things much better than I ever could myself. I bump into sentences that capture what I want to say perfectly – or sentences which make me discover things which I had in me but was only dimly aware of.
Today’s gospel happens to contain one of these sentences that speak so much to me – that I find very moving and somehow also liberating. It is uttered by Peter – the mercurial disciple who more often than not is wide of the mark, but also knows how to say the right thing at the right moment, especially during a crisis.
In this case, it is the crisis described by John’s Gospel at the end of Jesus’ speech on the bread of life: many people find Jesus’ words (understandably, it must be said) so shocking and strange that they give up on him. Some among the Twelve must have been tempted to do the same – this explains why Jesus asks them: “Do you wish to go away too?”. One easily imagines the embarrassed silence which must have followed this question and the relief produced by Peter’s disarming rejoinder: “Lord to whom can we go?”.
This is a sentence that often keeps me going in prayer for a long time - “Lord to whom can I go?” –in my own times of crisis, during the inevitable times of disenchantment with people, ideals, vocation, the church, and especially with the strange way in which the Lord acts, or doesn’t, in our lives.
The thing I like most about this sentence is what it implies.
The Gospel sets side by side the crowd and the disciples. The crowd does not understand, mumbles, complains, follows Jesus for the wrong reasons, can’t make sense of what he says. The crowd had come to Jesus for earthly bread and when does not get it, starts looking elsewhere, refuses to widen its horizon, to understand that there is a food for the heart even more necessary than the nourishment needed by the body. This food is our relationship with Christ, our becoming one with him, dwelling in him because he dwells in us – this is what Jesus tells them:
You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.
Then there are the disciples, those who have given up everything to follow Jesus, are always with him, are his confidants, the core of the new community Jesus wants to establish on earth. They should be those who never doubt, behave flawlessly, become models for the other followers. In fact, they end up behaving just like the crowd: they too fail to understand Jesus, are tempted to leave, and deserve the harsher rebuke:
Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?’
Just as the disciples, we too are not different from the ‘crowd’: we neither perceive nor understand, we have eyes but fail to see, ears but fail to hear. And we too, often, are easily tempted to disengage when put to the test.
Peter’s sentence captures this ambiguity and opens the way to a resolution – it is as if he said:
“Yes we are tempted go too – but we do not know where else to go. True, we do not get you – and yet we have seen enough of you to want to stick to you.
What this sentence, “Lord, to whom can we go?” expresses so well is that Christians are just as plagued by hesitation, doubts, and contradiction as those who do not believe in God – the only difference is that in times of crisis, at the crossroad of despair and hope, mysteriously, we discover ourselves able to dare. As we anxiously wonder where help will come from, we venture to raise our eyes to the mountains and proclaim: Our help comes from the Lord, he made heaven and earth.
Hence, however timid, however imperfect, however motivated by the absence of any other option, this sentence, this prayer can become a formidable springboard, it offers us an alternative to despair or cynicism, it leads our lives in a new direction: “Lord, to whom can we go?”. It echoes the sentence that Luke puts on the lips of the prodigal son: I will go to my father and say: To whom can I go? – or the Psalm: Something in my heart tells me that you are my God and that besides you there is no God.
This is how, for Christians, times of crisis can become a doorway to prayer. The Psalms are filled with instances of this kind
To you I lift up my eyes, you who dwell in heaven . . . Our eyes look to the Lord our God till he has mercy on us. Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.
The scorn and contempt that humiliate us come from the absurdity of the circumstances that imprison us and cut off all escape routes. Life brings us back cyclically to moments like these – times in which we can either fall into pieces or wake up from our usual oblivion of the Lord, and discover how much we need him, for real, and he is there, at our side, to be with us.
Like Martha, we are busy doing too many things, our relationship with the Lord is side-lined, we do not find time to dwell with him, in his presence. So we grow cold, we become spiritually lethargic, until a crisis occurs or some difficulty crops up: only then do we open our eyes and discover how far we have drifted away from the Lord. Then, and only then, do we feel the need to take refuge in the shadow of his wings and, seeking forgiveness, resort to him with all our heart and being.
This alternation between oblivion and transient conversions can last for years. The Lord deals out an infinite treasure of patience, kindness and generosity to lead us to authentic repentance and conversion. Most of the time, however, as soon as the difficulty wanes, as soon as the crisis is over, the newly found fervour in prayer cools down again.
Yet there also comes a day when we manage to cling to the Lord, to dwell by him[NF3] [L4] even when things get better, even when the crisis is over or the need is felt less acutely; a day comes when, like Martha’s sister Mary, we finally choose the best part: we sit at the Lord’s feet to watch and pray without getting tired  - a day in which, like Peter, like the disciples we find deep peace in this realization:
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’.