A timely post and prayer practice from Rev. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, when crowds were pressing in on him, when thousands were needing to be fed, when he was discerning his next steps, he prayed. When the disciples asked him how to pray, he taught them. And when the death squads were coming, and even his closest friends were too exhausted to keep watch for him, he prayed. There, in the Garden of Gethsemane, alone, when death loomed near and his friends were close at hand but far away, Jesus prayed.
But how? How did he pray? How did he pray in the Garden?
He wasn’t reciting the rote version of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, though perhaps that prayer brought him comfort and connection even in his isolation.
He wasn’t doing a breathing practice, though no doubt Jesus drew on his skills of meditation and contemplation to ground and strengthen him even to the end.
No, this prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane was grittier. Messier. Drenched in tears and snot. Shaking with the inward and outward howls of grief and anguish. Unreasonable. Unedited. Inappropriate. Raw.
Biblical translation: “Jesus…full of grief and anguish…fell prostrate in prayer: ‘Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. But not what I want—what you want.’”
How it probably really went down: Jesus pounded the dark earth, howling, tearing at his hair, tears and snot and dirt smearing muddy rivers down his anguished face: “Noooooooooo! I don’t want this to end this way! It’s too hard. I’m so scared. They’re coming for me! What are they going to do to me? What is going to happen to my friends? My family? Everything I have worked so hard for? There has to be another way! I don’t want to die yet. Not now! Not yet!” And when he was spent and exhausted in a heap on the ground and had poured out everything in his heart, he finally whispered, “Ok. I surrender. I put my life in your hands.”
And the truth is, even that wasn’t enough. He didn’t just pray this way once. Or twice. Three times he prays this way — pouring out the unedited truth as he experienced it, and then when his raw, beating heart was splayed out on the ground, he put the whole ugly-crying mess of himself and the world in God’s hands. Three times.
And in praying this way, Jesus found the courage to walk the journey ahead of him.
What can Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer teach us for this moment? A threshold moment. A time when death looms near. When loved ones are near yet far away. When fear and grief and anguish can tear at our hearts and line our faces. When most everyone is exhausted. A time when we are bearing losses upon losses, large and small, trivial and terrifying, and largely without the comfort of loved ones close at hand. Worse yet, we live in a culture in which grief and loss are trivialized and sterilized, sanitized and deodorized, privatized and monetized.
But when we are unable to give voice to our losses and honor our pain, we slowly die inside. So if the virus doesn’t kill us, the pandemic of unexpressed grief surely will. For without a way to safely and genuinely express our true grief, fear, anger and pain we may never uncover the very courage we need to embrace life on its own terms, and participate in the miraculous work of transformative love, even and especially in the presence of Covid-19.
How, then, shall we pray in these times?
Pray our rote prayers? Yes. Meditate and do breathing practices? Absolutely. And…perhaps we pray like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Where might your Gethsemane be? Your garden? Your room? The bathroom? The basement? Your car? A field or forest? Write out or speak out everything you feel, petty or profound. Maybe even ugly cry and wail and rage right out in front of everyone. Offer it all to God. This is prayer. And it may be just the prayer we need right now.
A Garden of Gethsemane Prayer Exercise
Matthew 26:36-46 The Inclusive Bible
Jesus Prays in Gethsemane
36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane and said to the disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” 37 Jesus took along Peter, James and John and started to feel grief and anguish. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death. Please, stay here, and stay awake with me.” 39 Jesus went on a little further and fell prostrate in prayer: “Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. But not what I want—what you want.” 40 When Jesus returned to the disciples, he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you stay awake with me for even an hour? 41 Be on guard, and pray that you may not undergo trial. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” 42 Withdrawing a second time, Jesus prayed, “Abba, if this cup cannot pass me by without my drinking it, your will be done!” 43 Once more Jesus returned and found the disciples asleep; they could not keep their eyes open. 44 Jesus left them again, withdrew somewhat and prayed for a third time, saying the same words as before. 45 Finally Jesus returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping? Still taking your rest? The hour is upon us—the Chosen One is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up! Let us be on our way! Look, my betrayer is here.”
There are two parts to Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemane Prayer. The first part is about laying out before God everything we think and feel about a particular situation. The second part is about giving up control, surrendering, putting ourselves entirely in the hands of Divine Love.
Bring to this prayer situations or circumstances — Covid-19 related or not — that you are grieving or that are difficult for you in some way. If they are helpful, use the suggested prompts below and write down (or speak out loud) everything you can — unedited — about your thoughts, feelings and desires about the situation, with no regard as to how petty, realistic or appropriate they are! (This is for your eyes only…!) The unvarnished and unedited truth of your experience is what this first part of the prayer is about.
I don’t want…
If it were up to me, I would…
When you feel you have expressed everything you can about what is on your heart, release everything into God’s hands by writing or speaking one of these phrases, or whatever words feel right to you…
Nevertheless, your will be done
Into your hands I commend my spirit and this situation
Not what I want, what you want
I turn my life and will over to you
I surrender control (again)
I place myself in the arms of Love
Just as Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, expressing our feelings and releasing control isn’t just a “one and done” practice! Placing our lives and will into God’s hands is an ongoing process — sometimes minute by minute!
If possible, go through this exercise three times, the second and third times adding any new feelings or truths that emerge. If you have written, you may wish to tear up or burn your paper when you are ready, or you may choose some other sign of placing yourself and the situation into God’s loving care.
Rev. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin is a pastor, mother, spouse, organizer, spiritual director, grief and life ritual leader, and coach. She is currently in an “End of Life Coaching” training program. Solveig is also gifted in the art of guided meditations and records personalized guided meditations for her directees and coaching clients upon request. She offers this on either a one-time or ongoing basis. You can contact Solveig through the Interfaith Spiritual Center.