Inside the Basilica of Gethsemane is the Holy Stone on which Christ is said to have wept and sweated “droplets of blood” in his acute agony for what was to happen to him and the movement of faith he had begun. Our group has made it to this place just as Mass was ending allowing us to touch or kiss the stone. I do not know why but suddenly I was overcome with emotion. Was it the thought of my sister who wanted so much to make the trip but was called to heaven a few months earlier? Was it the realization that no matter what Christ did or taught, we humans seem bent on grasping for power and greed and cruelty in our politics and our faith? The sudden press of other tourists kept me from bending to kiss the stone, but with the help of my friend Carolyn, I leaned forward enough to touch it. I felt an uncommon tremble in my hand as I did so. The room was silent except for the movements of people reaching and leaning forward. There were no histrionics, no gasping or moaning, only the silence of tears falling down the cheeks of people gripped by the prayer of desperation at this very site thousands of years ago.
Outside, we moved toward the Garden of Gethsemane which surrounds the Basilica where the Holy Stone is revered. The Garden is small and lies between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, a very steep hill. Gethsemane means “oil press” because it is covered with olive trees bearing small green-gray leaves; the trees are separated from tourists by an iron fence, but one is close to them and close to the holy sentiment of the place.
Reflecting on the deep anguish of Jesus at this site, I thought of the people I know who have had to let go of a beloved child as illness claimed its young life. I thought of the lonely terror that invaded the soul of a spouse clinging to what was left of a beloved one. I thought of people receiving a terminal diagnosis and who, alone in a hospital room, are reflecting on their ‘unfinished’ work or their fear of the ‘unknown’ in the diminishment of their earthly life. Everyone, yes everyone, has had at least one experience of a personal Garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes, though, the last words of Jesus in this hallowed spot are slow to come in the prayer of desperation of the ordinary person. But they can and do come if faith is allowed to work the heart. Jesus begged God to “Take this cup from me.” On the ground, writhing in fear, he probably screamed his prayer. But at some point, he lifted his head and quietly uttered: “But let it be as you would have it, not I.” (Mk 14: 36) Each of us can say that prayer as well.
If you examine or list all your deep concerns, you will be aware that your own prayer place is often a Garden of Gethsemane. However, we cannot be deterministic by thinking that God’s mind is made up, so our prayer does not help. We cannot be fatalistic throwing our arms up and crying it makes no difference what we think or ask for: God’s answer is pre-determined. A fatalist does not need faith. It is faith that says there is some good to come of this desperation; something will emerge that is hopeful and true and loving from this prayer. That is what God knows and we don’t. A prayer of desperation uncovers the anxiety we have and gradually leads us to the peace we find in faith.
I recently saw a wonderful movie on Netflix titled Father Stu. Based on a true story, Father Stu, an amateur boxer, and street wise guy, has a conversion experience leading him to seek priesthood. While a seminarian he is diagnosed with a terminal illness and finds his way to his parish church where, alone, and angry at God, he literally screams his prayer of desperation. I have never seen a piece of art so convincingly replicate the Agony in the Garden as this scene does in this movie. You must see it. I was riveted with the similarity of Jesus’ agony and that of Father Stu’s. Having just come from seeing the Garden of Gethsemane, I resonated even more.
When did you question your faith in God and move on without God in your life because of it? Did you later or now have a desire to do ‘something’ to ease your pain or recognize that God does love you and care for you despite the pain? Did you eventually pray – letting the humility of being in God’s hands tend to your pain?
How do you feel now – after your prayer of desperation?
Read slowly and prayerfully, Mk 14:32-42. What does this reading say to you?
And try to see the movie, Father Stu. I’m fairly certain it will speak to you.