Fall Waning Autumn Moon
In With No God I used the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac as an example. It was not the best choice, but I chose it because the story had deep personal meaning to me. Perhaps a better choice would have been the story of Joseph, what some call the first novel in the world. In that story a foreign born boy finds himself in a strange land, learns his way and prospers thanks to his wisdom. Joseph became the name for my own son, Joseph, who journeyed here from India. That may be too personal, too.
(Garden of Gethsemane today)
In the First United Methodist church where I grew up, my family always sat in the pews nearest the western stained glass window, a larger than life representation of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there, if you recall the story, where Jesus asked his father to lift his responsibility from him:
And they went to a place which was called Gethsem’ane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.”
(this is roughly the scene from the stained glass window)
This is no ordinary moment. The man Jesus, aware of his impending crucifixion, wants to escape the punishment. He is despondent, enough so that his soul feels on the cusp of disappearing. His friends, his disciples go with him but they fall asleep. He is alone.
He asks God to choose another way, after all he’s God. Just seven verses later Jesus says, “My betrayer is at hand.”
I recently witnessed a man of deep faith who had faced a Gethsemane moment in his life. He recounted the experience as like the stations of the cross. His life was in mortal peril and his continued life depended on others. After his friends and his wife had left him, he was alone, faced with what he knew was coming.
In this moment the stations of the cross became present to him, a way of placing his own suffering and fear in a sacred context. He saw his own moment as one of utter dependence and articulated in its journey through the Catholic understanding of the stations.
His passion and relief at this sudden emergence of his faith was palpable as he spoke.
Is there any comparable experience open to the humanist? I believe so.
If, as I believe, there is no God, then I still have to account for the deep feeling this man experienced. These are powerful narratives because they are human narratives.
When faced with certain pain and possible death, none of us choose pain and death. We ask if there’s another way? Could we do this? Or that? We hope, just maybe, I don’t have to through with this.
Sometimes the hope gets an affirmative. Yes, there is a way. We have another trick or two up our sleeves. Just as often, perhaps more often, we know the answer when we ask the question. This cup will not be taken from me. Judas awaits.
Gethsemane shows us the moment before a life altering event, an event that will change us in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It shows us that fear and reluctance, even despair unto death, go with the crisis. Having those feelings at such a time speaks to the human condition, our temporary, frail hold on this life.
As the disciples fall asleep during his prayer, the Mark narrative reminds us that we face these moments in our own soul, no one else can face them for us.
Embedded too in this poignant story of fear and loneliness a small fire burns. The arrest, the humiliation, the sentencing, the crucifixion and even death do not end it. We can pass through the very thing we most fear, have it come to pass in the most terrifying way possible and still emerge triumphant. That too is a human narrative, a narrative of hope and solace.
What about the time after death, so crucial to the gospel story of the passion? Katherine, a visitor to Groveland from Idaho I mentioned in an earlier post, finds the after life part of the story critical. I do too, but in a different way.
Even the most hopeful Gethsemane moments do not always end in a resurrection. Sometimes the story ends with our worst fears realized.
I think for instance of the story of Nick Caspar, the South Dakota auctioneer and son to Mikki and Pete, a friend to Jim. He faced a Gethsemane moment after his arrest for murder in the death of a North Dakota man. He and his family and friends went through the arrest, the trial and the sentencing. Nick did not walk out a free man. No, he’s inside for 8 years.
The question now for Nick and his family is this, does this spell the end of Nick’s dreams, the death of his future or can he go down into the prison, remain in it, then reemerge a free and hopeful man? The passion story suggests the answer is yes. This kind of brutal ending can be followed by a new life, a new way.
The very human narrative of Mark offers an anchor from a different time and place for a self adrift in the 3rd millennium.
Going back to my friend and his experience of the stations of the cross. From my onlooker perspective, non-Catholic, non-theist, what I witnessed spoke to soul language, to a poetic and beautiful evocation of the human experience of anticipated suffering, the suffering itself and the aftermath.
Much religious language seems to me language of the deep moments of the human soul, moments where our lives intersect with ancientrails already well traveled. These ancientrails open us to that vast pool of human awareness that Jung called the collective unconscious. Down there, far inside us, we meet the divine, the god-within-us and the stations of the cross, Gethsemane are its language.