(Fifth in a six-part Lenten Series)
“Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you!” Leonard Cohen coined that phrase in a melancholic poem, Hallelujah, and it reflects how certain things can seduce us so that we end up breaking our word, our commitments, and even our integrity. Lot of things, it seems, can overthrow us.
Beauty, sex, ambition, jealousy, fear, tension, wounds, anger, despair, impatience, frustration, hatred, tiredness, and even misguided religious fervour can overthrow us. The spirit is willing, says Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but the flesh is weak.
And it is! The simple fact is that too often we cannot actualize ourselves as we would like. We’re never as good as we’d like to be, never as stable as we’d like to be, never as much at peace as we’d like to be,never as bright as we’d like to be, and never as beautiful as we’d like to be. We always fall short somehow.
One shortfall is moral: When we’re honest we know the truth of St. Paul’s words: “I cannot understand my own behaviour. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the things I hate.” (Romans 7, 15-16)
How true! We’re a mystery to ourselves and, often, a disappointment as well. There’s a universal truth in the old Protestant dictum: “It’s not a question of are you a sinner, it’s only a question of `What’s your sin?'”
But it isn’t always about sin. The flesh is also weak in terms of simple adequacy. A generation ago, Anna Blaman put it this way:
“I realized that it is simply impossible for a human being to be and remain `good’ or `pure’. If, for instance, I wanted to be attentive in one direction, it could only be at the cost of neglecting another. If I gave my heart to one thing, I left another in the cold. … No day and no hour goes by without my being guilty of some inadequacy. We never do enough, and what we do is never well enough done. … except being inadequate, which we are good at, because it is the way we are made. This is true of me and of everyone else.”
Henri Nouwen, speaking more for our generation, has a gentler, though not-less clear, expression of this:
“One of the most obvious characteristics of our daily lives is that we are busy. We experience our days as filled with things to do, people to meet, projects to finish, letters to write, calls to make, and appointments to keep. Our lives often seem like over packed suitcases bursting at the seams. In fact, we are almost always aware of being behind schedule. There is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, and unrealized proposals. There is always something else we should have remembered, done, or said. There are always people we did not speak to, write to, or visit. Thus, although we are very busy, we also have a lingering feeling of never really fulfilling our obligations.”
We’re weak and we fall short, not so much in intention as in execution. Generally it’s not because of ill will that we end up experiencing what St. Paul, Anna Blaman, and Henri Nouwen so accurately describe. We don’t want to be unfaithful, unreliable, neglectful, irresponsible, or inadequate. What’s truest inside us wants to keep watch with Jesus in Gethsemane, wants to possess the moral greatness of a Mother Teresa, and wants to be known and respected for fidelity, reliability, and adequacy. The spirit, mostly, is willing, but, as Jesus warns in the Garden of Gethsemane, “the flesh is weak”.
What’s to be learned from this? What does the Garden of Gethsemane have to teach us as we struggle with weakness and inadequacy?
That we don’t overcome our inadequacies by willpower alone, by simply willing that we might be better. We change our lives through grace and community. In the Garden an angel came and strengthened Jesus. That same angel has to come and strengthen us.
In Gethsemane, Jesus didn’t just warn us about the never-ending struggle between good-intention and good execution, between desiring to be good and actually being so. He underwent the struggle himself. His spirit was willing, but his flesh, like ours, was full of resistance. Ultimately he triumphed. However that triumph did not come about simply because he willed to remain faithful (though he did and that was a necessary part of the triumph) but because “an angel came and strengthened him”, that is, divine power eventually did for him what he could not do for himself.
A lot of things can, and do, overthrow us, despite the fact that we want to be good. One of the lessons of Gethsemane is that we cannot overcome this simply by renewed willpower and good intention. We need, in the struggle, to surrender to grace and community in such a way that God’s angels can come and give us what we can’t give ourselves, namely, goodness, wholeness, and adequacy.