From Workshop "The Agony in the Garden as a Model of Human Suffering"
At this weekend’s Faith & Evangelization Congress (Archdiocese of Hartford), I reflected with participants on Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. We considered what makes this story so unique: it is a time of intense reflection between the ministry and death of Jesus; it is a period of mental and emotional struggle before the physical trial of the Cross; and it is a place where Jesus wrestles within himself, surrenders to the will of the Father, and is ultimately strengthened to move forward. We looked closely at the parallel accounts in Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42 and Luke 22:40-46 and closed our session with a meditation on suffering. Some participants asked if this last part of the presentation could be made available, and I’m happy to share it here. Though the meditation begins by asking the question of why we suffer, I suppose it really more closely addresses the question, What does it mean?
I’d like to offer a brief meditation to wrap up our thoughts on suffering and what we have learned from Jesus’ Agony in the Garden. Even though we have talked about how we can learn from and take comfort in this Gospel account of Jesus’ mental and emotional turmoil, we are still left with the perennial human question: Why do we suffer? I am not about to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but this is a topic worth revisiting, because rarely a day goes by that we do not suffer in at least some small way, and some days (some weeks, some months, some years), we suffer very much.
So why do we suffer? I don’t believe that God inflicts suffering upon us, but it is a fact that he allows it. We can easily see that the way God cares for us is not by protecting us from all bad things. But a great lesson of the Cross of course is that God brings great good out of the inevitable suffering of human life. And because we are a resurrection people who have faith in one who beat back even death itself, who conquered sin once and for all, and who showed us a way to live – we have a perspective on suffering that can offer comfort, hope and meaning.
First, think of suffering not only as an event or as something that happens to you but as a place. Suffering brings us to a crossroads. It offers us a difficult choice between two paths. On both paths, we suffer – there is simply no avoiding that. But one path is a road that leads right back into ourselves. When we choose this path, we are alone. We fret, we become bitter, we stagnate, we go nowhere. We just get stuck. The other path before us is the one that turns us outward – in our suffering, we embrace people and relationships. We open ourselves to God. We choose to have faith in one who is with us when we suffer. When we allow suffering to open us up this way, despite our pain, we are free. We go places. We may even flourish. This is why St. Paul wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Because when we already feel strong, when we already are strong, we have no need of God or his transforming presence. You may recall an itinerant preacher of the 1st century who wisely said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician” (Lk. 5:31). When I am weak, then I am strong – Why? Because now it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20). When we are weak, it is then that the “power of Christ” dwells in us (1 Cor. 12:9).
Of course we know that suffering changes us. We all know that we are pruned and shaped by the aches and pains of this life. It does hurt, but if we allow it, we can be transformed. No human being escapes the pruning shears of suffering, not even the Christ. His pruning – the pruning of the Master we follow and imitate – brought forth new life and redefined suffering forever.
Friends, we are a part of this “re-definition” of suffering. The one who suffered in the Garden and died on the Cross invites us near, very near. So near that we can smell the dirt of the Garden, so near that the nails pierce our hands too. He never promised we would not suffer. He simply said, “Follow me.” He invites us to follow, he invites us close so that we can be like him, so we can be one with him, so we may say with St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is now no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:19-20).
When we suffer, Christ is near. And the surrender of Christ is perhaps the greatest lesson of all – about suffering and how to make peace with it, about love and how to give and receive it, about God and how much he loves us. Your wrestling matches in your Gardens of Gethsemane, your journeys to Golgotha, the nails in your own hands and feet, the swords that pierce your heart – you have a share in this great lesson, in this great truth, in this awesome surrender of Christ.
It may seem that surrender would weaken us, make us vulnerable. But in actuality it strengthens us for anything that may come our way. We have not “given up.” We have “surrendered.” There is a big difference. Our surrender is not a frustrated throwing up of our hands. That is not the Christ we see in the Garden. No, our surrender is deliberate, it is an intentional “giving over” of ourselves and our own will to God because we trust him – we trust him with our bodies, with our minds, and with our futures. Our surrender is to finally and decidedly speak the words: Not my will but yours be done.
For when we finally take up our crosses as he told us to – every single day as he told us to – we find in this surrender a way of profound peace. In our surrender we have finally trusted our God – not to take our pain away, but to be present there with us; not to explain our pain away, but to make of it a time for giving and receiving love; not to ignore our pain, but to help us make of it a place where we can lie with Christ in the dirt of the Garden or hang with him upon the Cross. It is Jesus who taught us that unless a grain of wheat falls down to the earth and dies, it remains just a seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit (Jn. 12:24). What better place to fall down to the earth and die with Jesus, to be a seed trampled and buried, than in the Garden of Gethsemane? This is where we are meant to be, for he also said: “Where I am, there will my servant be also” (Jn. 12:26).
I close with a final thought. St. Paul said quite simply: If we die with him, we will rise with him (Rom. 6:8). We do not just suffer for the sake of suffering. We are never left to wait endlessly in a Garden or to hang forever on a Cross. No, we will rise up from prayer in the Garden, we will be brought down from the Cross. There is a glory to come – a sharing in the glory of Christ. Now we have only a foretaste of that glory, when we suffer with him, when we surrender with him, when we place ourselves in the loving hands of God with him. Yes, we could choose other Masters that might be easier to follow. But as disciples we would find no greater love and no greater peace; we would hear no richer promises. So let us join him in the Garden – in the dirt if we must – but always remembering that in our agony we are not alone – we are never alone – we will bear fruit and we will be raised – we who have surrendered with Christ.
Lord Jesus Christ, in the pages of Scripture, I read the story of your suffering. It is a story that begins with the rebellion of humankind and plays out over the pages and over the centuries, from the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane, from the long road out of Eden to the burdened path to Golgotha. In the world around me, and in my own life, I see your suffering continue. Though I find strength within myself and comfort in the support of others, there are times when my self-reliance becomes hollow; there are times when I am alone. In those times of true agony, I enter the Garden. I throw myself to the ground before you. There is nothing left to hide. There is nothing left to cling to. I only see the cup before me and the agonia within me. In my struggle, bring me to a place of peace and surrender: not my will but yours be done. Strengthen me to rise from this earth. Remain with me in this Garden of struggle and surrender, and I will drink this cup: Into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit! Amen.