[Jesus said], “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. – Matthew 18:10-14
The above pericope, the famed “Parable of the Lost Sheep” (along with its parallel retelling in Luke 15:1-7) is one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. I keep an ikon painting of Christ the Good Shepherd—inspired by this Biblical passage and others like it—hanging above my pillow in my bedroom in Eliot House. It is one of my most cherished possessions.
Jesus stands calmly in the center of the ikon, clad in rich crimson and cobalt robes. The look on his face is both strong and tender. A shepherd’s crook rests on his left arm. A little lamb is draped gingerly across his shoulders, echoing language from Luke’s version of the lost-sheep parable (Luke 15:5: and when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices). The lamb’s hooves are held securely in Christ’s pierced hands. The poor creature looks exhausted, and a bit forlorn, as though it has just experienced an unexpected, frightening, and lonesome adventure in the wilderness; but the lamb is safe now, being carried in the loving arms of Jesus. Behind sheep and shepherd stands the Holy Cross: a reminder that Christ the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11).
It comforts me to fall asleep every night under the steady gaze of this ikon painting. Indeed, while there are many and sundry and beautiful images for Christ to be found in the pages of Scripture—each meaningful and important in its own way—it is this image, the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd, which is for me most enduringly, spiritually resonant.
More often than not, I identify deeply with that lost sheep whom Christ rescues, with that forlorn “little one” whom Christ relentlessly seeks out and welcomes home. Life frequently feels to me like a wide and fearsome wilderness in which I am lost; struggling to find my way amid brambles and thorns; hiding, petrified, from all manner of beasts which I am powerless to overcome or to escape, unless I am rescued by my Savior.
And this is true in more ways than one. There is more than one kind of wilderness in which I wander as a helpless lamb. I do not have the space to explore all of those wild lands here. For this Lenten reflection, I will simply focus on one wilderness which has been on my heart these past few months: The Wilderness of Prayer.
As it is for many Christians, private prayer is central to my personal piety. But private prayer can, of course, take many forms. Therefore, I cannot hope to be representative of all Christians in my discussion of private prayer. But I can, at least, speak from my own experience of it, and perhaps that will still be of some use to readers.
In my case, I am cut from the cloth of Christian contemplative tradition, which means that my private prayer practice is influenced by and inflected with Christian monastic spirituality—as such, my prayer is usually characterized by silence, and by a lack of discursive concepts and language. Prayer for me, and for members of the Christian contemplative tradition of which I am a part, is not so much about talking to God as it is about resting in God.
Many have written on the kind of prayer of which I speak. One of my foremost teachers—and one whom I think will serve as a good example if you’re less familiar with the prayer I practice—is the fourth-century monk and theologian Evagrius of Pontus, who wrote a beautiful work called the Chapters on Prayer, which has exercised profound influence throughout the history of Christian spirituality. In the Chapters, Evagrius defines prayer in myriad ways, all of which converge to form a contemplative kaleidoscope of sorts. Prayer, for Evagrius, is “a continual intercourse of the spirit with God.” Prayer is “an ascent of the mind to God.” Prayer is “a country” far away from sense, intellect, and memory; a silent realm characterized by “the rejection of concepts” and by “a state of imperturbable calm.”
Simply put, prayer is, for Evagrius, an experience and practice of the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, and which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (see Phil. 4:7).
Well! That all sounds nice. But so much for peace—when I endeavor to pray contemplatively, my experience is often anything but peaceful. As I situate myself on my kneeler and settle into a period of silent prayer, my descent into my own mind and heart usually feels like an uncomfortable journey into a rather savage place. It is, after all, when I am trying my hardest to achieve interior stillness that I am confronted by those thoughts that I normally try to avoid: my basest desires, my most entrenched insecurities, my deepest fears, my shameful ambitions. Often, I try to pray contemplatively, but then all these thoughts flood my attention simultaneously, molding themselves into a fearsome mental landscape that, tired and scared, I strive (fruitlessly) to navigate: a landscape replete with sharp thorns, dread monsters, overgrown pathways, and long shadows.
This is the Wilderness of Prayer to which I referred earlier, and I am but a lost lamb within it, helpless and frightened. How am I supposed to achieve the “imperturbable calm” described by Evagrius when the practice of prayer so easily becomes an encounter with my own formidable darkness? How can I “ascend to God” if, when I try to clear my mind, I merely descend into my own interior wilderness, becoming lost in a storm of thoughts? In my experience, just because a thought is “mine” does not mean that it is mine to control. If anything, I usually feel at the mercy of my own thoughts, in the same way that a lamb separated from the refuge of its flock is at the mercy of the wilderness which surrounds it.
I think the answer to my conundrum is that prayer is not actually about me achieving anything—but it is about what God can achieve in and for me. The lost sheep is helpless and hapless. All it does, and all it can do is, stupidly, get lost. As a sheep of Christ’s flock, it is my purview to become lost. But it is Christ’s purview to find me and to save me from the dangers of the wilderness.
Evidently, from an Evagrian perspective, this includes the wilderness of my own restless thoughts which, when stirred up, separate me from the peace I seek in prayer. Note how Evagrius, in Chapter 62 of the Chapters on Prayer, outlines the merciful work of Holy Spirit in our prayer:
“The Holy Spirit takes compassion on our weakness, and though we are impure he often comes to visit us. If he should find our spirit praying to him out of love for the truth he then descends upon it and dispels the whole army of thoughts and reasonings that beset it.” It is as St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans: likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (8:26).
So, weakness is not so much something that I must conquer as it is something I must honestly encounter in my own flawed, impure experience of prayer. And if in the desire for my loving Savior I confront my own weakness—if as a helpless lamb I let myself be lost in my own wilderness—I can trust that God will seek me out and bring me home, to a place of peace and calm beyond the lonesome and violent wastes of thought that seemed so ready to devour me. This, the zenith of prayer, is not an achievement. It is a gift of grace from the Messiah, from the Good Shepherd who deigns not to abandon me or you to the wilderness for long.
This Lent, in your experience of prayer, I invite you to let yourself be a little lamb from the flock of Christ. Surrender yourself to that wide wilderness which is in you; to those scary, shadowed, unkempt places in your mind which normally you try your best to avoid or to overcome. Let yourself be lost in your own experience of weakness and vulnerability. Let that aporia, and nothing more, be your offering to God. And let God love you in your wilderness. Let Christ lay you across his shoulders and carry you to a place of peace. You and I are beloved little ones. Embrace your littleness and helplessness. And trust—it is not the will of your Father in heaven that a little one such as you should be lost.
Aidan Luke Stoddart ’21 is a junior in Eliot House studying Comparative Religion.