Gethsemane As Liminal
There's never a good time to die, to bid final good-byes, to lose health, to have a heart attack, to be diagnosed with terminal cancer, to lose friends, to be betrayed, to be misunderstood, to lose everything, to be humiliated, to have to face death and its indescribable loneliness. That's why there's a powerful resistance inside us towards these things.
We can take consolation in knowing that this was the case too for Jesus. He didn't face these things either without fear, trembling, and the desire to escape. In the Garden of Gethsemane "he sweated blood" as he tried to make peace with his own loss of earthly life.
The Garden of Gethsemane is, among other things, "liminal space". What is this? Anthropologists use that expression to refer to special times in our lives when our normal situation is so uprooted so that it is possible precisely to plant new roots and take up life in a whole new way. That's usually brought about by a major crisis, one that shakes us in the very roots of our being. Gethsemane was that for Jesus.
It's significant that Jesus didn't go straight from the last supper room to his crucifixion. He first spent some time readying himself. What's incredible in his story is that he had only one hour within which to do this inner work.
Imagine this scene: You're relatively young, healthy, and active. You've just enjoyed a festive dinner with close friends, complete with a couple of glasses of wine. You step out of the dining room late at night and you now have one hour to ready yourself to die, one hour to say your final good-byes, to let go, to make peace with death. Sweating blood might be a mild term to describe your inner turmoil. This would surely be an intense hour.
And so it was for Jesus. That's why his liminal time is often called his "agony in the garden" (an apt term to describe real "liminal space".) What's interesting too is what scripture highlights in his suffering in Gethsemane. As we know, it never emphasizes his physical sufferings (which must have been pretty horrific). Instead it emphasizes his emotional crucifixion, the fact that he is betrayed, misunderstood, alone, morally lonely, the greatest lover in the world, with God alone as his soul mate.
And what's burning up his heart and soul in Gethsemane? Jesus, himself, expresses it in these words: "If it is possible, let this cup pass from me!" His resistance was to the necessity of it. Why death and humiliation? Couldn't there be some other way? Couldn't new life somehow occur without, first, dying?
In the Garden, Jesus comes to realize and accept that there isn't any other way, that there's a necessary connection between a certain kind of suffering, a certain letting go, a certain humiliation, and the very possibility of coming to new life.
Why that necessity? What do we ultimately sweat blood over? Perhaps Job put it best: "Naked I came into this world and naked I leave it again." We are born alone, without possessing anything: clothing, a language, the capacity to take care of ourselves, achievements, trophies, degrees, security, a family, a spouse, a friend, a reputation, a job, a house, a soul mate. When we exit the planet, we will be like that again, alone and naked. But it's precisely that nakedness, helplessness, and vulnerability that makes for liminal space, space within which God can give us something new, beyond what we already have.
There are times when we sense this, sense its necessity, and sense too that one day, perhaps soon, we will, like Jesus in the Garden, have to make peace with the fact that we are soon to exit this life, alone, but for our hope in God. That's Gethsemane, the place and the experience.
Our own prayer there, I suspect, will be less about necessity than about timing: "Lord, let this cup be delayed! Not yet! I know it's inevitable, but just give me more time, more years, more experience, more life first!"
To feel that way is understandable and, if we're young, even a sign of health. Nobody should want to die or want to give up the good things of this life. But Gethsemane awaits us all. Most of us, however, will not enter this garden of liminal space voluntarily, as did Jesus ("Nobody takes my life, I give it up freely!"). Most of us will enter it by conscription, but just as really, on that day when a doctor tells us we have terminal cancer or we suffer a heart attack or something else irretrievably and forever alters our lives.
When that does happen, and it will happen one way or the other to all of us, it's helpful to know that we're in liminal space, inside a new womb, undergoing a new gestation, waiting for new birth - and that it's okay to sweat a little blood, ask God some questions, and feel resistance in every cell of our being.
Gethsemane - A Place To Learn A Lesson
There's nothing wrong with wanting health, success, beauty, power, glamour, money, or fame. Of themselves, these are good and can, if used properly, help God's glory shine through in ordinary life. But they can also be dangerous and can just as easily corrupt, inflate, and weaken rather than strengthen character. We want these things, but they aren't always good for us.
Ironically, the reverse is also true: We don't want failure, humiliation, sickness, powerlessness, poverty, or inferiority of any kind. Yet these, more than success and glamour, are what produce character and depth inside us. We see this, for instance, in a family who has a handicapped member. It's this person who gives the family character and depth. The son or daughter who's the professional athlete or the wonderfully beautiful fashion-model bring glory to the family, but not necessarily character. Character comes from something else.
If we examine ourselves with courage and honesty, we will see that almost all the things that have made us deep and given us character are the very things we're often ashamed of: a plain body that won't let us stand out in a crowd; a quirky family whose habits can only be understood from the inside; a frustrating job where our real talents can never emerge because we don't have the right education or the right opportunities; a troubled history within which there have been too many instances where we were the dumb one, the weak one, the sick one, the excluded one, the fat one, the slow one, the one chosen last when sides were drawn up, the one without a date on a Friday night, and the one who got beaten up on the playground. Beyond that, we've also been forever the frustrated one, the one who, despite the burning ache for greatness, has never and will never create the masterpiece, write the symphony, or dance on a world stage.
But character and depth aren't given for scoring goals in the World Cup, for winning Oscars in Hollywood, or for being so successful or beautiful that you become an icon for an adoring public. Character and depth are given for coping with powerlessness, inferiority, and humiliation, that is, for finding that deeper place inside of you where you can make a happy peace with the fact that your mother is too fat, that your father never blessed you, that you were abused, that the school bully humiliated you in front of your friends, that you were always the outsider, and that even today you live a life of quiet desperation wherein sickness, addictions, dark family history, loneliness, and inadequacies of every kind are barely kept at bay.
There's an innate connection between attaining a certain level of depth and having experienced a certain level of humiliation. That's one of the lessons of Gethsemane.
When Jesus walks into the garden of Gethsemane, he asks his disciples "to watch". They're meant to learn a lesson there, to see something illustrated. But, as Luke tells us, they missed the lesson because they fell asleep "out of sheer sorrow", were blinded by simple depression, and were unable precisely to stare humiliation in the eye. That's why on the morning of the resurrection, when Jesus meets two disciples walking away Jerusalem (the church, the faith, and the place of humiliation) towards Emmaus (a Roman Spa, a place of human consolation) he has to point out to them the necessary connection between humiliation and depth: "Wasn't it necessary that the Christ should have to suffer in this way so as to enter into his glory?"
What they'd missed seeing in the Garden, missed seeing Jesus struggling with and eventually accepting, was precisely the innate link between the experience of humiliation and the resurrection of character. Resurrections come after crucifixions, Easter Sundays after dark Fridays, and depth of soul after the kind of pain that one is ashamed of.
However, just like power and success, failure and humiliation are also dangerous. Power can corrupt, but so can powerlessness. Many are the acts of violence that issue forth when people feel powerless and humiliated. Sometimes failure and frustration build character, but sometimes they build monsters and murderers. Feelings of inferiority drive us into the deeper parts of our souls, but demons, not just angels, lurk in those depths. That's why Gethsemane is drama without a pre- written ending. Not everyone will handle things like Jesus did. The feeling of humiliation can make or break us, pushing us either into greatness or perversity.
In Jesus' case, it pushed him into
greatness. How he handled his humiliation was perhaps his greatest gift to us
and his deepest revelation of wisdom. By accepting humiliation and powerlessness
(without resentment, but as a gift that can used to give something deeper back
to the community) he taught us one of the deep secrets inside the very DNA of
love itself, namely, that only when the private ego is crucified do real love,
community, and character emerge.
Gethsemane - The Place Of Moral Loneliness
Our deepest loneliness is not sexual,
but moral. More than we yearn for someone to sleep with sexually and
emotionally, we yearn for someone to sleep with morally. What we really want is
a soul mate.
What does this mean?
Ancient philosophers and mystics used to say that, before being born, each soul is kissed by God and then goes through life always, in some dark way, remembering that kiss and measuring everything in relation to its original sweetness.
Inside each of us, there is a dark memory of having once been touched and caressed by hands far gentler than our own. That caress has left a permanent imprint inside us, one so tender and good that its memory becomes a prism through which we see everything else.
Thus we recognize love and truth outside of us precisely because they resonate with something that is already inside us. Things "touch our hearts" because they awaken a memory of that original kiss. Moreover, because we have a memory of once having been perfectly touched, caressed, and loved, every experience we meet in life falls a little short. We have already had something deeper. When we feel frustrated, angry, betrayed, violated, or enraged it is because our outside experience does not honour what we already know and cling to inside.
And that dark memory, of first love, creates a place inside us where we hold all that is precious and sacred. It is the place we most guard from others, but the place where we would most want others to enter; the place where we are the most deeply alone and the place of intimacy; the place of innocence and the place where we are violated; the place of compassion and the place of rage.
The yearning and pain we feel here can be called moral loneliness because we are feeling lonely in that precise place where we feel most strongly about the right and wrong of things, that is, we feel alone in that place where all that is most precious to us is cherished, guarded, and feels vulnerable when it is not properly honoured.
Paradoxically, it is the place where we most want someone to enter and yet where we are most guarded. On the one hand, we yearn to be touched inside this tender space because we already know the joy of being caressed there. On the other hand, we don't often or easily let anyone penetrate there. Why? Because what is most precious in us is also what is most vulnerable to violation and we are, and rightly so, deeply cautious about whom we admit to that sacred place. Thus, often, we feel wrenchingly alone in our deepest centre.
A fierce loneliness results - a moral aching. More deeply than we long for a sexual partner, we long for moral affinity, for someone to visit us in that deep part where all that is most precious is cherished and guarded.Our deepest longing is for a partner to sleep with morally, a kindred spirit, a soul mate. Great friendships and great marriages, invariably, have this at their root, deep moral affinity. The persons in these relationships are "lovers" in the true sense because they sleep with each other at the deepest level, irrespective of whether they have sex or not. In terms of feeling, this kind of love is experienced as a "coming home", as finding a home, bone of my bone. Sometimes, though not always, it is accompanied by romantic love and sexual attraction. Always, however, there is a sense that the other is a kindred spirit, one whose affinity with you is founded upon valuing preciously the same things you do.
But such a love, as we know, is not easily found. Most of us spend our lives looking for it, searching, restless, dissatisfied and morally lonely.
It's this kind of loneliness that brought Jesus to his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane. The blood he sweated there is the blood of a lover, one betrayed, morally betrayed, hung out to dry in all that was precious to him.
Nikos Kazantsakis once wrote that virtue is lonely because, at the end of the day, it is jealous of vice. "Virtue," he writes, "sits on its lonely perch and weeps for all it's missed out on." Not quite, though perhaps that's what it feels like.
But the pain of virtue, while not immune to jealousy, is a whole lot deeper than Kazantsakis (and conventional wisdom) suspect. It's the pain of Gethsemane, of moral loneliness, the ache of not having anyone to sleep with morally.
One of the lessons of Gethsemane is that when we sweat our moral aloneness (without giving in to compensation or bitterness) we undergo a moral alchemy that can produce a great nobility of soul. "What's madness," Theodore Roethke asks, "but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?" True. And that madness intensifies loneliness, even as, more than anything else, it opens the soul to the possibility of finally finding a kindred spirit.
(Fourth in a six-part Lenten Series)
"A common soldier dies without fear, but Jesus died afraid." Iris Murdoch wrote those words and they teach one of the lessons of Gethsemane. The Garden of Gethsemane is also the place where we are put to the test. What does this mean?
The great spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, once wrote a book (In Memoriam) within which he tried to come to grips with his mother's death. The manner of her death had surprised him and left him struggling with some painful doubts and questions. Why?
His mother had lived a full life; she'd died surrounded by a loving family and friends, and in her final illness had been made as comfortable and pain-free as possible by the best of modern medicine. What's troubling about that?
She'd died struggling, it seemed, with her faith, unable to find at the most crucial moment of her life consolation from the God she'd loved and served so faithfully her whole life.
His mother, as he explains at the beginning of the book, had been a woman of exceptional faith and goodness. He was teaching aboard when he received the phone call that she was dying. Flying home to be with her, he mused naively how, painful as it was going to be, his mother's death would be her final gift of herself and her faith to her family. A woman who had given them the faith during her life would surely deepen that gift by the way in which she would face her death.
But what he met in his mother and her struggles as she died was, at least to outward appearances, very different. Far from being peaceful and serene in her faith, she fought doubt and fear, struggling, it seemed, to continue to believe and trust what she had believed in and trusted in her whole life. For Henri, expecting that someone of such deep faith should die serenely and without fear, this was very disconcerting.
"Why", he asked, "Would God do this? Why would someone of such deep faith seemingly struggle so badly just before her death?"
The answer eventually came to him: All her life, his mother had prayed to be like Jesus and to die like Jesus. Shouldn't it make sense then that she should die like Jesus, struggling mightily with doubt and darkness, having to utter, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!" Jesus didn't die serenely, but struggling with doubt. Shouldn't his most committed followers expect a similar struggle?
The great mystics called this struggle "the dark night of faith", an experience within which God purifies us by seemingly withdrawing all sense of his presence so that our thoughts and feelings run dry and we can no longer imagine God's existence. We become, in our hearts and heads, atheists at that moment, though something in our souls knows another reality.
And it's an awful feeling, one of the worst pains possible. Darkness, chaos, and fear overwhelm us and we stand, literally, on the brink of nothingness, of non-existence, sensing our finitude, littleness, and loneliness in a way we never sensed them before. We feel exactly what it would mean to live in a universe where there is no God.
The great doctors of the soul tell us that, while nobody is immune from this trial, it is generally experienced in so radical a way only by those who are the most mature in the faith and thus more ready to be purified by its particular fire. It's not surprising then that it is experienced so strongly by people like Henri Nouwen's mother.
The rest of us tend to get it in bits and pieces. Little doses of what Jesus experienced on the cross appear in our lives, reveal the fearful edges of nothingness, and let us taste for a moment what reality would feel like if there were no God. Part of the darkness and pain of that (and why it feels as if we are suddenly atheists) is that, in that experience, we come to realize that our thoughts about God are not God and how we imagine faith is not faith. God is beyond what we can feel and imagine and faith is not a warm feeling in the heart or a certainty in the mind, but a brand in the soul - beyond thought and feeling.
One way or the other, all of us have to learn this. But we'd like the lesson to come to us a bit more gently than how it came to Jesus in his last hours. Whenever we pray the Lord's Prayer and say, "Do not put us to the test", we're asking God to spare us from this night of doubt.
When Jesus walked into the Garden of
Gethsemane, he told his disciples: "Pray not to be put to be put to the test."
We need to pray for that because real faith can sometimes feel like doubt and
serenity can too easily turn into dark fear.
Gethsemane - The Spirit Is Willing But The Flesh Is Weak
"Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you!" Leonard Cohen coined that phrase in a melancholic poem, Hallelujah, and it reflects how certain things can seduce us so that we end up breaking our word, our commitments, and even our integrity. Lot of things, it seems, can overthrow us.
Beauty, sex, ambition, jealousy, fear, tension, wounds, anger, despair, impatience, frustration, hatred, tiredness, and even misguided religious fervour can overthrow us. The spirit is willing, says Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but the flesh is weak.
And it is! The simple fact is that too often we cannot actualize ourselves as we would like. We're never as good as we'd like to be, never as stable as we'd like to be, never as much at peace as we'd like to be,never as bright as we'd like to be, and never as beautiful as we'd like to be. We always fall short somehow.
One shortfall is moral: When we're honest we know the truth of St. Paul's words: "I cannot understand my own behaviour. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the things I hate." (Romans 7, 15-16)
How true! We're a mystery to ourselves and, often, a disappointment as well. There's a universal truth in the old Protestant dictum: "It's not a question of are you a sinner, it's only a question of `What's your sin?'"
But it isn't always about sin. The flesh is also weak in terms of simple adequacy. A generation ago, Anna Blaman put it this way:
"I realized that it is simply impossible for a human being to be and remain `good' or `pure'. If, for instance, I wanted to be attentive in one direction, it could only be at the cost of neglecting another. If I gave my heart to one thing, I left another in the cold. ... No day and no hour goes by without my being guilty of some inadequacy. We never do enough, and what we do is never well enough done. ... except being inadequate, which we are good at, because it is the way we are made. This is true of me and of everyone else."
Henri Nouwen, speaking more for our generation, has a gentler, though not-less clear, expression of this:
"One of the most obvious characteristics of our daily lives is that we are busy. We experience our days as filled with things to do, people to meet, projects to finish, letters to write, calls to make, and appointments to keep. Our lives often seem like over packed suitcases bursting at the seams. In fact, we are almost always aware of being behind schedule. There is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, and unrealized proposals. There is always something else we should have remembered, done, or said. There are always people we did not speak to, write to, or visit. Thus, although we are very busy, we also have a lingering feeling of never really fulfilling our obligations."
We're weak and we fall short, not so much in intention as in execution. Generally it's not because of ill will that we end up experiencing what St. Paul, Anna Blaman, and Henri Nouwen so accurately describe. We don't want to be unfaithful, unreliable, neglectful, irresponsible, or inadequate. What's truest inside us wants to keep watch with Jesus in Gethsemane, wants to possess the moral greatness of a Mother Teresa, and wants to be known and respected for fidelity, reliability, and adequacy. The spirit, mostly, is willing, but, as Jesus warns in the Garden of Gethsemane, "the flesh is weak".
What's to be learned from this? What does the Garden of Gethsemane have to teach us as we struggle with weakness and inadequacy?
That we don't overcome our inadequacies by willpower alone, by simply willing that we might be better. We change our lives through grace and community. In the Garden an angel came and strengthened Jesus. That same angel has to come and strengthen us.
In Gethsemane, Jesus didn't just warn us about the never-ending struggle between good-intention and good execution, between desiring to be good and actually being so. He underwent the struggle himself. His spirit was willing, but his flesh, like ours, was full of resistance. Ultimately he triumphed. However that triumph did not come about simply because he willed to remain faithful (though he did and that was a necessary part of the triumph) but because "an angel came and strengthened him", that is, divine power eventually did for him what he could not do for himself.
A lot of things can, and do, overthrow us, despite the fact that we want to be good. One of the lessons of Gethsemane is that we cannot overcome this simply by renewed willpower and good intention. We need, in the struggle, to surrender to grace and community in such a way that God's angels can come and give us what we can't give ourselves, namely, goodness, wholeness, and adequacy.
Gethsemane - The Place
To Give Up Resentment
"When you carry someone's cross, don't send him or her the bill!"
This is one of the lessons of Gethsemane. The challenge of being an adult, one who helps carry life for others, is to give ourselves over in love, duty, and service without resentment. Those last words are key: Real love is not simply a matter of giving ourselves over in service and duty (mostly we have to do this anyway, whether we want to or not) it'sa question of giving ourselves over without being resentful.
This was one of the struggles of Jesus in Gethsemane. He was asked to give up his life and freedom for something higher and, like all of us,felt a fierce resistance. Nobody, easily and naturally, gives himself or herself over to the deeper demands of love, duty, and service. Transformation through prayer is needed to bring us there.
We see this in Jesus: Only after having prayed is he finally able to say: "Yet not my will, but yours, be done". When he says this, his gift is pure. He is able to give himself over without resentment to the demands of a love which will take his whole life. After his prayer in Gethsemane, he is able to do what he needs to do without the feeling that he is a victim.
Jesus is victimized, but never a victim. When Pontius Pilate tries to intimidate him by telling him: "I can save your life or I can take it", Jesus responds: "Nobody takes my life from me, I give it up freely!" That translates: "You can't take from me by force what I have already freely given over out of love!"
And that's the lesson: We become life-giving adults and our love becomes free of manipulation only when we can say this and mean it: "Nobody takes my love and service from me, I give it over freely!" Only when we stop seeing duty as an unfair burden that we haven't chosen can we love and serve others without resentment and without making others feel guilty because of what it's costing us.
But, it's not easy to say those words and mean them. Like Jesus in the face of the deeper demands of love and duty, we initially say: "Let this cup pass! There's got to be a way out of this, a way for me to become free of this." That's natural. It's natural to want our freedom, to want to be free of burdens, of duty, of unfair circumstance. Nobody wants a martyrdom that he or she didn't sign up for!
But eventually this form of martyrdom finds us all. If we are sensitive and good-hearted, love will frequently become duty, demanding circumstance, and an invitation to sacrifice ourselves for someone or something else. Always there will be someone or something making demands on our freedom and opportunity: children who need us, an aging parent who has only us, family obligations, a spouse with an illness, a crisis at our workplace, a tsunami in Asia, a war we don't want, a church that needs volunteers, and obligations of every kind that come from being sensitive to the demands of God, family, church, country, morality, and the poor.
The world is not divided up between those who are burdened by duty and those who are free of it. Anyone who is sensitive and good is burdened by duty. The world is divided up rather between those who are burdened with duty and are resentful about it and those who are burdened with duty and are not resentful about it.
That is very much the lesson of Gethsemane: What Jesus gave over to his Father in the Garden is not perhaps so much his life, since his enemies were closing in on him and he might have had to die in any case, irrespective of any willingness or unwillingness on his part. Thousands of people die violently every day, against their will. There's nothing special in that. What's special in Jesus is how he prepared himself to meet that death, namely, by being willing to die without resentment, without putting a price-tag on it, without making anyone feel guilty about it, and with a heart that was warm rather than cold, forgiving rather than bitter, and large and understanding enough that it didn't have to demand its due. In the face of bitter duty, he took his life and his love and made them a free gift.
That's the greatest struggle we have in love. We're good people mostly, but, like the Older brother of the prodigal son, all too often we nurse resentment, even as we do all the right things. That leaves us outside the house of love, hearing the music, but unable to dance, bitter about life's unfairness. We need, at some point, to say: "Not my will, but yours, be done."
If we say that and mean them, we will taste
for the first time ever, real freedom.