Thursday, 30 April 2015

On Gethsemane, Suffering, and Christian Witness

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I go yonder and pray." And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.

We talk about Christian witness a lot. You witness by talking about your faith. You witness by serving up soup. You witness by accepting children as they come. You witness by living out your faith even when it earns you persecution. But I think we often fail to talk about another sort of witness...
Kristus i Getsemane by Carl Heinrich Bloch via Wikimedia Commons

When I pray the Rosary, or when I otherwise reflect on the Lord's Passion, Gethsemane is usually what hits me the hardest. It isn't the Crucifixion, that moment of redemption; rather, it's Christ's utter loneliness in the garden. 

We talk about Christian witness a lot. You witness by talking about your faith. You witness by serving up soup. You witness by accepting children as they come. You witness by living out your faith even when it earns you persecution. But I think we often fail to talk about another sort of witness—the witness that Christ lacked in the garden, and the resulting loneliness that he felt deeply.

I've suffered from depression for a long time. I was diagnosed some 13 years ago. It seemed almost inevitable that I would be hit with postpartum depression. For the first month, I was on top of the world—I was madly in love with my newborn son; I was filled with energy and wonder and joy. And then reality hit.

Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me."

At just about the one-month mark, I began to have bouts of crying. I suddenly needed to clean obsessively, even cleaning for hours at night sometimes because I couldn't sleep anyway (twice I didn't fall asleep until 8 or 9 a.m. the next morning, all while my infant gave me stretches long enough to induce profuse gratitude in most parents). And the crying only got worse.

At my darkest, I would literally curl up on the floor and wail for hours at a time. Lifting a tissue to my nose often took more energy than I had. My husband would do exactly as I asked of him, and I would still be filled with bitter resentment that he wasn't doing something else instead. I was plagued with an obsessive desire to skip meals, and dinner became an all-out war.  I wanted to die, and I thought my child and my husband would be better off without me.

And where were my child and husband, while I wailed on the floor? 

At my side.

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt."

I was convinced of two things: I could not go on, and there was nothing anyone could do to help me.

I knew on some level that both of these things were untrue, but just as I felt utterly compelled to claim that I was fine (even when it was painfully obvious to everyone, even me, that I was not), I likewise felt compelled to believe what the depression was telling me.

Eventually, after I bit my husband's head off for the hundredth time, I agreed to talk to my doctor. I agreed I wasn't okay. But I still had to wait for the appointments to roll in, and there was nothing anyone could do for me in the meantime.  Or so I thought.

And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."

One night, I learned what my husband had been doing to help me all along. As I lay sobbing, wailing, he laid with me—but this time, out of the sheer exhaustion of working a full-time job , caring for a needy infant, and watching over a desperate wife, he fell asleep. When I realised I was alone, I felt a new level of despair creep in.

I don't begrudge him that sleep—he desperately needed it. But what it revealed to me—or started to reveal to me; I was too ill at the time to fully appreciate it—was the value of his witness. All the times that I'd told him there was nothing he could do for me, he'd already been doing more than I realised: he'd been witnessing my suffering.

I think this is the sort of witness that we forget all too easily. It takes courage to watch someone suffer. I know it hurt him to see me hurting, but he watched with me without complaint. He kept me company. 

Christ still had to go to the cross, but how much easier (it's never easy!) was it when God sent the angel to strengthen him? I still had to wait for my appointments to come, but how much easier was it with my husband (and child) by my side?

I hope I don't forget to be grateful for what my husband did for me. And I hope I retain what I learned from it. I want to be a better witness for Christ—not just by sharing my faith, or by living out my vocation, but also by seeing what's around me. I pray I have the courage not to turn away in the face of suffering. I pray I have the courage to be another sort of witness. 

It's hard to know what to do when it seems like there's nothing that can be done. So I urge you, if there is nothing else to do, witness. It means more than you realise and helps more than you know.

How have you witnessed? When has someone witnessed for you?


  1. This is so beautiful - thank you for sharing! My father struggled with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and many other ailments before he passed away... I wish I could say I had been a helpful witness to his suffering, but I don't think I bore it with the courage of your husband. God bless you!

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think it's probably even harder when it's a parent--your parents are "supposed to be" the ones protecting you from hurting, after all! But I bet you did more for him than you realise. God bless!