"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.
Henri’s mother, as he explains at the beginning of the book, had been a woman of exceptional faith and goodness. He was teaching abroad 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 would God do this? he asked. 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.
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 nonexistence, 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 the test” (see Matthew 26:41). We need to pray for that because real faith can sometimes feel like doubt, and serenity can too easily turn into dark fear.