Thursday, March 29, 2012

Jesus and the Garden...Not Your Standard Image

Yesterday I talked about how the sweat like drops of blood that Jesus experienced in the Garden was the result of severe, as in "over the top" anxiety and panic and how that is at odds with our usual view of Jesus' facing his impending death with serene calm and trust.

I was thinking about how one might rewrite the Garden story to reflect that and how different the image of Jesus would be.

So imagine with me that the Passover Supper has just ended.  The disciples are full of roasted lamb and vegetables and wine.  They are satiated and sleepy.  Jesus, however, is growing more and more anxious. His heart is beginning to race, the muscles in his temples are tensing and he feels a clutching wrench in his stomach.  However, he masks all these sensations and does his best to appear normal, calm, even cheerful.  But his anxiety is growing.  Try as he may, he knows that each minute is bringing him closer and closer to his fate. The images flood his brain and he licks his lips.  They are parched and dry. He takes a deep breath and sighs.  The disciples don't notice anything.  They are too content to notice that panic is overtaking Jesus.

He suggests to the disciples that they go to the Garden because he wants to pray. They are happy to accompany him.  Jesus often goes away to pray and besides, the Garden is a good place for a nap on a pleasant spring night.

Once there, the disciples blink to stay awake and Jesus withdraws. Before he does, he tells them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” In the middle of a panic attack, one both wants company and wants to be alone, so Jesus both wants to get away from his friends, but wants them near at the same time. He is now entering into a zone of complete terror.

It's all he can do to keep his breathing steady.  The muscles in his jaws are tightening and he feels a crushing pressure in his chest. His mind races.  His entire nervous system is flooded with adrenalin and his heart begins to pound visibly.  He swallows hard, willing himself to calm down, but the autonomic nervous system takes over.  He writhes inside with anxiety and fear.  His mind races.  He can almost feel the nails in his hands and feet and the thought makes him nearly dizzy with fear.  It's all he can do to kneel down and beg the Father, "Please, please."  His knees give out and he falls on his face, crying out, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."  The last words are wrenched from a throat that is constricted.  For a moment, Jesus thinks that he might actually die right there, in the Garden.

But the intensity of the panic attack ebbs and he manages to get to his feet.  By now he's not thinking clearly. In fact, he's not thinking at all.  He gasps for air, steadies himself against a tree and goes back to his friends. They have fallen asleep.  Disappointed and fearful, he asks, “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” Couldn't they see what he was going through? he wonders.  Couldn't they see how much he needed them to be with him.

He turns to Peter and says, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." Peter thinks Jesus is reprimanding him for falling asleep, but Jesus is talking about himself.  His spirit is willing to go through with what is coming, but his body is not.  His body has a mind of its own and it is in full-on panic mode.  The waves of fear start up again, washing over and over him until he thinks he either must go crazy or die. He runs his hands over his face, bites his lips, presses his fists into his chest.  He falls on the ground, nearly writhing with the mental anguish. The words come in ragged bits.  He wants to be willing, but he is terrified, utterly and completely terrified of what is to come. “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

Jesus feels dizzy, absolutely wild inside. He wants to run, to scream, to die. He breaks out in a cold sweat, shaking from the sudden chill. In that moment, the anguish is so great that small blood vessels begin to break all over his body. He is covered with blood.  He looks at the drops falling on the ground in horror.  He tries to pray, but his mind is so contorted with agony all he can do it cry in anguish, "Please Father.  Please."

The first blood of the Passion has been shed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

First Blood of the Passion

My goal has always been to try to blog daily, but sometimes the best laid plans of (wo)men and mice gang agley as Bobbie Burns says. Mine have gone astray with yet more things to do with my mother's estate.  It sometimes feels like it will never end!

While I've been getting death certificates and financial papers in order, I've also been thinking about the upcoming Passion Week, the High Holy Days of Christendom.  In particular, I've been thinking about Holy Thursday and the events in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Like a lot of Catholics, for me Holy Thursday has been a day when the emphasis is on the institution of the Eucharist and the foundation of the priesthood. Gethsemane is sort of an "add-on" that happened, but not much attention is paid to it.  It's sort of like Gethsemane is the transition between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, with not all that much happening.

Oh, yes, there's that whole "Your will not mine" episode and the betrayal of Judas, but those things often get sort of swallowed up in the following events: the trial, the scourging, the via dolorosa, the crucifixion and the burial.

That's why I think we need to take a new look at Gethsemane. The events in the Garden are, to my mind, exquisitely poised to help those of us who are living in these times cope with the stresses and pressures of our times.  A new kind of meditation, one that is centered on  Gethsemane, might be just what the modern world is seeking.

Let's begin with the first and perhaps most startling revelation I had.  It was in the Garden that the First Blood of the Passion was shed. We talk about the "Blood of the Lamb" in reference to the Crucifixion, but it was there, under the olive trees that Jesus first began the Passion. Luke 22 says, "And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground."

 Now for most of my life, I sort of assumed that this bloody sweat was unique to Jesus, but it isn't. Other people, most notably a young girl terrified of the World War II air raids in Britain, have experienced it as well. It's called hematohidrosis and according to wikipedia:

Dr. Frederick Zugibe (former Chief Medical Examiner of Rockland County, New York) stated: "The severe mental anxiety...activated the sympathetic nervous system to invoke the stress-fight or flight reaction to such a degree causing hemorrhage of the vessels supplying the sweat glands into the ducts of the sweat glands and extruding out onto the skin. While hematidrosis has been reported to occur from other rare medical entities, the presence of profound fear accounted for a significant number of reported cases including six cases in men condemned to execution, a case occurring during the London blitz, a case involving a fear of being raped, a fear of a storm while sailing, etc. The effects on the body is that of weakness and mild to moderate dehydration from the severe anxiety and both the blood and sweat loss."
The key here is severe mental anxiety. Jesus was so terrified of what was coming, his blood vessels hemorrhaged. I don't know about you, but I've never considered that the calm, in control Jesus that we always portray going to his death experienced such "severe mental anxiety" the night before that he, quite literally, panicked. And in his panic, he shed the first blood of the Passion.

This seems to me to contain a powerful lesson and example for us.  Stress, anxiety and panic are so common that millions of Americans take drugs every day to cope. To think that Jesus was subject to the one of the greatest maladies of our time gives me pause. 

I have more to say about this tomorrow, but for now, just consider for a moment that of all the events of Jesus' Passion, the one that we can relate to the most in our day and age happened in that time we so often gloss over--in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Gratitude for the end of March

Sundays are hard for me. I used to spend them with Mother and so the emptiness is more intense than on other days. And then there are old memories of other parts of my life that seep into Sunday as well, making the day just plain tough.

That's why I decided to use Sundays for listing gratitude.  When I'm feeling my darkest, it makes me look toward the light.

1. Blue nail polish.  I've always liked nail polish and for some reason blue polish just tickles me.

2. Half and half.  Yeah, so it's hard on the arteries and skim milk or soy milk is so much better for you.  But in a cup of coffee, real half and half can't be beat.

3.  My son.  I got to talk with him yesterday and that always brightens the greyest of days.

4.  The public library.  I love being able to browse for books that I might not have ever thought about reading, either electronically or physically.

5. Wifi.  Of all the recent inventions, wifi has got to be one of my favorites.  Sitting anywhere in the house and being able to access the internet and email is magical.