“And they were asleep out of sorrow.” St. Luke uses those words to tell us why the disciples fell asleep during Jesus’ agony in the Garden. They fell asleep, he says, not because the hour was late and they were tired from the supper and the wine. No, not that. They fell asleep “out of sorrow”, “out of sheer grief”.
That’s a pretty accurate description of why we often sell ourselves short, refuse to suffer for what’s noble, and choose to short-circuit tension rather than carry it with patience. We’re like the disciples in Gethsemane, not bad persons, just a long ways from what’s best in us because we’re “asleep out of sorrow”. What’s meant by that?
We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, Leibnitz said that. That’s more than an abstract statement. Most days it’s a fact that grates us, frustrates us, eats away at our patience and moral fibre, and leaves us living lives of quiet desperation. We’re far from whole, every one of us. We carry too many wounds, broken dreams, betrayals, imperfections in our bodies, and past mistakes. None of us has been loved perfectly and none of us is loved perfectly. Everyone of us has, in one fashion or other, been slighted, ignored, not properly valued, put down, taken for granted, abused. Because of this, all of us carry inside of us a deep, inchoate sorrow. It’s that sorrow that makes us fall asleep.
We’ve all experienced this and know what it feels like:
There are times in life when we feel loved, secure, safe, valued, an integral part of things. When we feel that way, what’s best inside of us more easily bursts forth. We find it easier then to walk the high-road, to carry tension, to put up with things, to be self-sacrificing, and to see others’ suffering and not just our own. When we’re like this, we’re more awake, more observant, more compassionate, more truly ourselves.
But we also know its opposite: There are times in life when we feel put down, ignored, valueless, taken for granted, misunderstood, abused, inadequate for what’s best in life. It’s easy then, and understandably so, to settle for the first soft shoulder or easy way out that offers itself, irrespective of long-term consequences. Dragged down by an inchoate sadness, we’re no longer looking for the high-road, we’ll settle for any road at all as long as it makes us feel better.
However when we do that, we’re settling for second-best, selling ourselves short, not operating out of what’s best in us, not because that’s what we really want, but because, given our deep sadness, second- best or even third-best will do. We’re trying to get by, to survive, to make do. We’re not trying to be saints. That’s a conscriptive, but not a healthy, humility. Sadness can diminish hope and make you fall asleep.
And any number of things can trigger this. Sometimes a tiny put- down will send us tumbling to the depth of sorrow – a slight from a friend, sarcasm from a colleague, being taken for granted, being ignored in a gathering. Other times it will be a weightier thing: a betrayal by a loved one, disappointment in your own body, a professional failure, a physical illness, a lost job, the breaking down of a relationship, a rejection in love, the death of a loved one, or even the seemingly irrevocable presence of injustice and violence of our world. A slight or a holocaust, either can trigger the kind of sorrow that brings on the sleep the disciples fell into in Gethsemane.
Richard Rubenstein, in a book called, After Auschwitz, says: “When I say we live in the time of the death of God, I mean that the thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth, has been broken. We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources. After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God, except that he is dead?” Deep sorrow can do that to you. After Gethsemane and Golgotha, Jesus’ disciples also thought God was dead when they were only asleep.
What wakes us up? Peter woke up when he heard the cock crow, saw Jesus’ face, and realized that love stays even after you betray it. On learning that, he never fell asleep in that way again. Obviously there’s a deep secret here. Sometimes, though, it’s an even further sorrow that wakes us. As John Shea says, “the cock will crow at the breaking of our own ego. There are lots of ways to wake up.” Mostly though, as the Gospels make plain, it’s new light, a risen body, an empty tomb, a resurrection, a rainbow breaking in after the storm, an unexpected forgiveness, and a second-chance that wake us. And, as our faith assures us, we have an infinite number of second-chances even if we have, for most of our lives, settled for second-best.