In this post I’m going to tackle The Agony in the Garden. It’s the first of the five Sorrowful Mysteries. I explained my reason for attempting this series in the first place back in Part 1, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out. To briefly recap: I’m trying to explain why Christ fully understands the pain of mental illness despite not being mentally ill himself.
To start off, let’s take a look at the scene itself from the Gospel of Mark:
Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.” He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” When he returned he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing. Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open and did not know what to answer him. He returned a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough. The hour has come. Behold, the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. See, my betrayer is at hand. ~ Mark 14:32-42
You can probably see some things right away when you read this passage from the perspective of mental illness. The thing that started me down the path of examining these mysteries in this context was Jesus’ comment to his closest friends:
“My soul is sorrowful even to death.”
Like everyone who has gone to church since childhood, I’ve heard this reading more times than I can even begin to count. In the translation I’ve heard most often the quote actually reads “My soul is sorrowful unto death.” My assumption for most of my life was that this comment related to the fact that Jesus knew he was going to die and was sorrowful about it. I certainly couldn’t blame him. I’d have been pretty upset myself in his position. But that’s not what he meant. My eyes were opened a little over a year ago when I happened to hear a priest discussing this scripture passage on EWTN. Jesus isn’t saying “I’m really sad I have to suffer and die.” The words he said mean: “I’m dying of sorrow.”
I’m dying of sorrow.
Hearing that painted the whole scene in an entirely different light for me. This isn’t a man in anguish because he’s afraid of suffering. I’m sure the knowledge of the horrible death awaiting him certainly didn’t help matters any, but that isn’t the only thing at play here. Jesus’ emotional torment is far deeper than just dread. In the Gospel of Luke it says:
“He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” Luke 22:44
According to that version of the Gospel, an angel had to be sent from heaven to strengthen him. There are a number of things about that particular passage that can be debated, but the point is that the torment Jesus was suffering was unlike anything anyone had ever experienced. Why? Well, think about it. He’s taking on the sins of all mankind. Every single sin, from the most venial uncharitable thought to the worst mass-murders in history, and everything in between and beyond. All the hate, violence, rapes, child-abuse, cruelty, neglect, prejudices, and the list goes on and on. Jesus stepped up and took the blame for all of it so that each of us wouldn’t have to take the blame for our own contribution to it all. It’s easy to give lip-service to that, but when you really stop to think about it, the sheer enormity of that reality is shocking. Can you even begin to imagine the kind of guilt that would induce? It wasn’t just a “well, I didn’t really do any of this but punish me anyway” situation.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
Jesus became sin. He didn’t sin. But he took responsibility for sin itself. God never does anything halfway. If Jesus took responsibility for sin, you can bet he felt the effects of that just as if he had committed the sins himself. It’s kind of horrifying, isn’t it?
How does this tie into mental illness?
Emotional anguish. Deep sorrow. An unspeakable sense of guilt. If you’ve ever been depressed, all of that sounds awfully familiar. But there’s something else going on here that is also very likely familiar.
First off, Jesus left the majority of his disciples behind elsewhere in the garden. He was only comfortable bringing along Peter, James and John. He had brought them along to see his Transfiguration too, so it’s safe to say they had a special relationship with him. He didn’t begin to show his “trouble and distress” until after he was alone with those three, so clearly he trusted them more than the others to be able to handle the reaction he was having. Anyone who has ever been severely depressed knows that it’s not something one goes out and chats about with any random person on the street. If you open up about it at all, it’s only going to be with someone you really trust. Jesus admitted to them that he was “dying of sorrow.” Now, I don’t know about you, but coming from anyone other than Jesus I think that would sound a bit melodramatic. The reality is, it’s a very valid description of what depression feels like. There’s just no way to communicate that kind of anguish without sounding like you’re blowing things out of proportion. That’s why it’s hard to open up to people about it. To not be taken seriously when you’re in that amount of pain is unbearable.
So Jesus opened up and admitted to these three men just how horrible he felt, and he asked them to “Remain here and keep watch.” I don’t want to put words in Jesus’ mouth, but it’s possible to take this statement to mean “Don’t leave me. I need you here to look out for me right now.” Given the state he was in, that’s a very understandable request. It’s the sort of request that often remains unspoken because a depressed person can’t bring himself or herself to burden his or her loved ones, or perhaps because the “loved ones” wouldn’t comply. When it is spoken, often the response is not what we hoped for. Perhaps they’re uncomfortable in our presence because they can see how much we’re hurting and don’t know how to help. Or perhaps they don’t see how much we’re hurting and don’t take us seriously enough to be of much comfort. Either way, it’s not uncommon for this simple request for the comfort of company to go unfulfilled.
So what did Peter, James and John do when the Son of God asked them for this?
They fell asleep.
They fell asleep!
Have you ever had the experience of daring to open your heart to someone and then looking over and realizing whoever it was slept through most of what you said? Literally, dozed off and slept through it? To call the experience crushing just doesn’t quite cover it.
“Are you asleep? Could you not watch for one hour?”
The utter disbelief in these words is nearly tangible, not to mention the pain and disappointment. If you’ve ever been in the position of reaching out for help and being disregarded, not taken seriously, or just plain let down by the people you love, these words ring painfully true. And if there’s anything that causes intense anguish that most people are incapable of understanding or sympathizing with, it’s mental illness.
It’s not like this happened once and then Jesus’ friends smartened up. They fell right back to sleep again. And the second time Jesus came back to them they “did not know what to answer him.” No kidding. I’m sure they felt bad. I’m also sure they were completely unable to comprehend the kind of suffering Jesus was going through. They knew he was upset, and it bothered them, but what could they do? They didn’t understand what was going on. That seems to be the case more often than not when it comes to mental illness. The people who care about you feel bad, but they don’t know what to do to help. And they aren’t exactly to blame for that. They can’t help not understanding what you’re going through. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
Jesus’ final words to these three are heartbreaking.
“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?”
Is there anger in those words? Quite possibly, though obviously I can’t say that for certain. At the very least they seem to carry a fair amount of exasperated disappointment. If you’ve ever felt frustrated, betrayed or let down by people who you thought would be there for you but weren’t, Jesus fully understands the feeling.
So where does this leave us? Obviously Jesus has experienced more mental and emotional anguish than any of us, and he was let down by his loved ones when he needed them most. That covers two potential aspects of mental illness, but there’s plenty more where those came from.
In the next post I address the second Sorrowful Mystery, The Scourging at the Pillar.
Take care and God bless!