Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
And He came to the Disciples and found them sleeping; and He said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:40-41 (From the Gospel of the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Thursday Morning) Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent
Good morning Prayer Team!
Jesus asked three of His Disciples to “watch” with Him while He prayed. His prayer was one of great agony. Not only He felt the weight of the enormous, almost unthinkable, task at hand, but in addition, He felt the sorrow of loneliness, knowing that He would bear the Passion alone. An angel came to comfort Him. When He returned to His Disciples, however, He found them sleeping. This wasn’t betrayal. It wasn’t denial. But it had to hurt.
As for the Disciples, why did they fall asleep? Were they just too tired and the task of “watching” was too great for them? Did they not care about Jesus and His obvious struggle? He had just spent hours telling them about His Passion, saying “goodbye” to them. I would venture to say that when Jesus asked the three Disciples to watch while He went yonder to pray, that the “intention” of the Disciples was to do exactly that, to watch. I don’t think Jesus left their company and immediately they started saying “He’ll be gone awhile, why not catch a few zzz’s?” I’m positive that they started out with the best of intentions in their spirits, but their bodies just didn’t keep up, and they fell asleep. The spiritual opportunity lost out to a material concern.
If we think about this verse, it is very appropriate to the struggle to be a Christian. There are many spiritual opportunities. And these opportunities are not hidden. We know what they are. We know what the right thing is to do. And yet many times material concerns override our desire to do the right thing. How many times have people opted to sleep late rather than go to church? How many times have we forgotten to pray? Or we’ve said that we’ll pray but we put it off and before we know the day has gone by and no prayer has been said? How many times do we have the opportunity to stand up for our Christianity, but we don’t out of some kind of fear. And how many times do we say “I’ve got to treat my body better with better diet and more exercise,” only to fail on both counts?
“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” is a reality that challenges each of us. I’m reminded of an Old Indian story by the title “Two Wolves”. It reads as follows:
One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed.”
Like the “two wolves,” there is a battle in each of us between the flesh and the spirit. There is, however, a third “player” at work in each of us and that is the mind. The human being is composed of body (flesh), spirit and mind. So, one has to decide what will lead in life—will it be the body leading with the mind and spirit following? Will it be the mind leading, or will it be the spirit leading? The truth is, whatever leads, the other parts follow. So, if we lead with our flesh—filling our bodies with bad food, and filling our minds with bad thoughts, then our spirits will not be strong and in moments of temptation, the spirit will be weak. If we lead with our spirits, seeking after God and allowing Him to lead, then the mind and the body will follow in ways that are edifying to us and helpful to others. Ideally, we let the spirit lead, and everything else follows.
How, on a practical level, is that accomplished? Here is one practical idea: Eliminate the word “TRY” from your life. Many people say “I’ll TRY to pray,” or “I’ll TRY to exercise” or “I’ll TRY to eat better,” or “I’ll TRY to make better choices.” Perhaps the Disciples said to one another “We’ll TRY to stay awake.” I am reminded of the scene in the Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back when the old sage Yoda challenges Luke Skywalker to lift his X-wing fighter out of a swamp using his mind. Luke says to Yoda “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different!” Irritated, Yoda responds “No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.” Luke replies “All right, I’ll give it a try.” And then Yoda says one of the most memorable lines of the movie “Do, or do not. There is no try.”
The way to bring the flesh in line with the spirit is to not try, and just do. Don’t try to pray. Pray. Don’t try to get to church. Go to church. Don’t try to follow the commandments. Follow them. Make a choice to do, and not to try. And when the voice of the one “wolf” comes into your head, the voice of doubt and discouragement and distraction, know that that voice is the voice of the devil. And silence him through prayer and focus. And don’t forget the important ingredient of friends/community. There were three Disciples who fell asleep. At the beginning of the watch, they could have agreed to keep each other awake and focused. Instead, as they began to nod off, perhaps they all agreed, “What was the big deal anyway.”
Focus. Get your friends to help you focus. Stop trying and start doing. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak sounds like an excuse. Get the flesh in line with the spirit by doing.
Create in me a clean heart, o God, and put a new and right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing Spirit. (Psalm 50/51, read at all Orthros services in the Orthodox Church, including all the evening services of Holy Week)
Let your spirit lead today!
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