Today’s Gospel reading is the well-known story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. The story occurs in the Gospel of Matthew immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. While many homilists and writers have undoubtedly reflected on Jesus and Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee today, I found myself focusing on something else.
I noticed that right before both miracles, feeding the five thousand and walking on the water, Jesus did the same thing. He withdrew to a deserted place by himself to pray.
“When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Matthew 14:13, Feeding of the Five Thousand
“After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.” Matthew 14:23, The Walking on the Water
I believe there are subtle details in these readings about Jesus’ prayer practices that we can learn from.
In both instances Jesus prays outside in what were probably beautiful places. First he prayed in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and then on a mountain near the sea. I had the opportunity to pray on the beach in the mornings while I was on vacation this summer. It was an awesome way to start my day and watching the Sun rise above the Atlantic Ocean like a giant Eucharist as I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours was an experience I won’t soon forget. Naturally beautiful places immerse us in God’s creation and remind us of his love and glory.
Effort and Exertion
Jesus chose to exert himself to get to his prayer locations. It takes work to get a boat out onto water. It also takes effort to walk up a mountain. The readings do not tell us how far off the shore Jesus took his boat or how high Jesus walked up the mountain to pray, but he clearly chose challenging locations even though there were easier options nearby. Jesus could have easily prayed on the grass where he fed the five thousand, but he didn’t. We should remember the preparation and effort Jesus made to pray to his Father the next time we come up with excuses not to pray or to cut our prayer time short.
Healing people, preaching, and doing other activities were part of Jesus’ ministry, but he took time away from those activities to pray. In fact, we can infer from Matthew 14:23-25 that Jesus must have spent a lot of time praying. The Scriptures say that Jesus was alone by the evening and that it was not until “the fourth hour,” between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM, that he reached the disciples’ boat on the Sea of Galilee. If Jesus started praying in the evening and lifted Peter out of the sea during the fourth hour, then he must have spent somewhere between nine and twelve hours praying that evening. Prayer is not a throwaway activity. Without a dynamic prayer life, our ministry activities are in vain.
Some of the places where Jesus went to pray were completely deserted. It may not always be practical for us to pray alone, especially for those of us with young families, and communal prayer is important, but the Scriptures tell us that Jesus valued praying alone and knew that it was important to get away from the crowds and even his own disciples to be alone with his Father from time to time.
A challenge to pray like Jesus
If we commit significant time and make an effort to journey to beautiful places to pray to our Lord alone from time to time, then I believe, like Jesus feeding the five thousand and walking on water, God will respond by giving us the grace to do amazing things for the glory of his kingdom.