The Sorrowful Mysteries – Part 2: The Agony in the Garden

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!

Kasani

 

 

The Sorrowful Mysteries – Part 1: Christ’s Intimate Understanding of the Pains of Mental Illness

This is, perhaps, a rather somber post to strike off the new year. Discussing Christ’s passion and death on the cross might seem painfully out of place amidst the joy and splendor of Christmas (a season celebrated by the Church in the weeks following that beautiful day, rather than the weeks prior to it). But let’s face it: the season is not always a happy one. Many people have painful memories, disappointments, and resentments attached to this time of year. I admit that my Christmas this year was peaceful and pleasant—something I thank God for. But I understand what it’s like to be in the throws of depression on Christmas. I’ve been there. I also understand what it’s like to be stuck in a psych ward on Christmas. I’ve been there too. Mental illness does not go on hold for the holidays and leave us alone. If anything, the Christmas holidays make it worse because of the stress and bustle and drama associated with them (not to mention the fact that winter is often a difficult time for people with mental illnesses to begin with). But there’s something we need to understand about this season that might act as a balm for some of our suffering:

Christmas isn’t about celebrations with friends and family, gifts, or good cheer. The meaning of Christmas, the truth that is so often smothered by our tacky secular celebrations, is that Christ took on flesh and came down to join us in our misery. He came down to experience our pain, our sorrow, our grief and distress. He came down to suffer and die for our sins. And he did this out of love. So if you did not have a happy Christmas, don’t feel that it was somehow a failure. Christmas isn’t about happiness. It’s about love: a love that reaches down into the depths of darkness and despair to be with the beloved, whatever the cost. Christ is with you, and he’s not going anywhere. He’ll be here every step of the way this year, whatever it brings.

This series of posts will be an examination of the 5 Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary and how they apply to mental illness. Before my protestant readers run away screaming, rest assured that a rosary “mystery” is simply a meditation on a part of scripture–the same scripture you read in your bibles. It hasn’t been tampered with or altered in any shape or form. The Sorrowful Mysteries are a meditation on Christ’s Passion and death. The mysteries include:

Now, I could have brought these pieces of scripture up without mentioning the rosary at all. But the fact that I meditate on these parts of Jesus’ life every Tuesday and Friday via the rosary has helped me to understand how they are applicable to me on a personal level because of my mental illness, and how they are applicable to all sufferers of mental illness. The repetition has helped me grasp things that probably wouldn’t have sunk in otherwise.

Why am I bringing this topic up in the first place? I want to address an issue I found myself running into for quite a while after my diagnosis, because I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s come up against it. It goes something like this:

Christ came down to earth to be with us in our suffering, and thus He understands it on an personal level.  As the letter to the Hebrews explains:

“He had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Hebrews 2:17

And later on in the letter:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace for timely help.” Hebrews 4:15

I had always found these passages to be comforting, but after going through the experiences brought on by my disorder, I began to have doubts. Of course Christ suffered. But He wasn’t mentally ill. He didn’t have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or any of the other numerous diseases that affect the mind. Of course, He’s God and therefore must fully understand everything in creation. But can it truly be said that He understands the suffering I experience from my illness at a personal level? How can it be said that He was “tested in every way” when He didn’t have a mental illness to battle?

This objection may sound absurd to some people, and rest assured it’s no longer something that troubles me. After all, Christ lives in me, right now, all the time. He experiences my pain and suffering every moment that I’m alive. It took a while for that to dawn on me. But setting that aside, the reality is He did experience the type of anguish brought on by mental illness during His life on earth, on all its varied levels. It’s plain to see, but for some reason terribly easy to overlook. As we take a look at each of the mysteries I listed above, as well as a few other scenes from the Gospels, I think you’ll understand what I’m getting at.

I tackle the First Sorrowful Mystery in Part 2.

Take care and God bless,

Kasani