They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John…. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. …. He came and found them sleeping … for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. (Mark 14: 32-40. NSV)
“I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.”
The singers, a tour from some place like the Second Baptist Church of Wayward, Georgia, stood just inside the filigreed iron gate set in a wall of cream-colored stone on the side of the Mount of Olives. Trying to be unobtrusive, my wife and I walked by them, down a row of olive trees to a bench, where we sat and looked across the Kidron Valley at the Old City.
I listened to the distant voices—“And He walks with me, and He talks with me”—and to the birds singing, watched the sun play upon the leaves of ancient olives trees looking as if they’d been carved from stone and on cedar trees pointed toward the sky. Overhead, the sky was cloudless blue and it wasn’t yet hot. Mary Lee and I talked for a while about the purple flowers growing around the cedars (clematis, maybe?) and then simply sat savoring the silence. This, the part of the Garden of Gethsemane across the road from the Church of the Agony, was the first peaceful place we’d been since we’d arrived in Jerusalem two days earlier.
The folks from Georgia left, leaving us the only people there, and I don’t know how long we sat—maybe twenty minutes—before we got up to leave. We hadn’t yet been to the church across the road and we were planning on hiking to the top of the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Ascension.
But when we reached the gates, they were locked.
I remember thinking, “‘Locked in the Garden of Gethsemane,’ what a great title for a poem!” I may have even laughed. I wasn’t really worried; another tour would be by shortly (There’s always another tour coming by in Jerusalem). So Mary Lee and I found another bench, and I tried to imagine what I might write. I thought about the death of my daughter ten years earlier from cancer, about how I’d locked myself away in a den to drink myself into oblivion, about the way some of the people I called friends disappeared from my life when I needed them most, about how I’d felt like Handel’s Messiah, “despised and rejected … a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” But I kept humming “In the Garden,” and enjoying the view of golden domes across the valley, the music of birds, the smell of cedars, and the feel of sun. After fifteen minutes or so, the gate opened for a tour of Spanish nuns.
That day I felt no sense of suffering, no feeling of betrayal. All I recall is a little heartburn, some sweat as the day began to heat up, and sense of failure, not for getting locked in, but for feeling like a tourist and not a pilgrim. I couldn’t make the experience—the history, the holiness—part of me. I was an outsider, an onlooker, there in body but not in spirit.
In the woods across the road from Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky is Walker Hancock’s sculpture of Jesus and the three disciples in that garden from which the Trappist monastery takes its name. As you walk along the path through the woods, you first encounter Hancock’s depiction of Peter, James, and John sleeping on some stones, hands folded or stretched out peacefully, their bodies curled up comfortably, their faces smooth and serene. You have to walk further—possibly around a corner, I don’t remember—before you behold Jesus, kneeling on a stone, his head thrown back, his hands over his face, his body wrenched backward as if he were a bow waiting for an arrow. Standing in front of this larger than life figure, you can see tension pulling at his chest and throat.
Looking today at the photographs I took ten years ago, I note the distance—both physical and emotional—between the disciples and Jesus. I think of the morning I was locked in the Garden of Gethsemane, and I find myself sympathetic to Peter, James, and John. Like them, I could not grasp the significance of what was around me.
And it also strikes me that the years after my daughter died, when I felt alone, betrayed by friends and family and colleagues, reveal the vast chasm that exists between those who grieve and those around them.
Grief is the most isolating of all experiences. At least it has been in my life, both when I’ve grieved and when I’ve tried to comfort someone in grief. Even if I know what it is to lose a child, when I’ve been called upon to support another grieving parent, I remain, as Mark tells us Peter, James, and John were, not knowing what to say. Even if I’ve experienced what it feels like to suffer deeply, when I know someone else is suffering, my first response is to curl up and close my eyes.
All I’ve learned over the last twenty-plus years is the importance of at least physically narrowing the gap between the person grieving and myself. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 80 % of compassion is just showing up—staying awake, listening, and trusting that the gates will eventually become unlocked.