I am using a piece of today’s gospel in the Christian tradition. I am coming at this from a wisdom perspective not necessarily a Christian perspective although this particular wisdom teaching happens to come from the Christian tradition.This story popped into my head several weeks ago after a conversation I had with a friend. The words “Keep watch” kept playing over an over again in the context of what this story is teaching.
In the story Jesus knows he is about to be turned over to the authorities and sentenced to death. Here is the piece I want to work with – Matthew 26:36-45:
36Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.” 37And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zeb’edee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39And 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.” 40And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.” 43And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
In this part of the story, Jesus is showing three of the disciples and us how to be transformed through suffering. He shows them how to make space for sorrow and let emotions move through. They fall asleep not once but three times. He asked them to watch with Him, and they could not bear it. I have to say that in my writing and teaching I am continuously challenging people to bear their suffering. Learning this is an integral part of growing a center that holds. We make no room for suffering, because somewhere along the way we were taught not to show it. We were programmed to view it as weak. We were taught to put on the happy face – the supposedly strong one. We wonder why our politics and religious systems are a mess. We wonder why we are a mess. I have been practicing allowing myself to have my pain and other challenging emotions for years, and I still often catch myself resisting. It is so counter-culture to be vulnerable even to ourselves. I am not sure how this got so twisted given this wisdom goes all the way back to the time of Jesus and many wisdom masters across religious traditions before him. Nevertheless here we are. Here we are in the midst of this global pandemic being thrown into suffering on various levels when many people already had enough of it. The question is will we go to sleep? Or will we go to our own Gethsemane and make conscious space for our sorrow, fear, anger or worry? Will we watch and witness what is going on with us so that it can transform us and allow us to move forward the same way it allowed Jesus to do so. He did not say to his disciples, “watch me do what only I can do”. He said, “watch with me”. This was a teaching moment and, it was largely missed.
I want to look at line 41 in particular here. “41Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” What does he mean by “temptation” here? In the context of this wisdom the temptation is to leave our suffering too soon – to, in essence, leave our self. The temptation is to go to sleep on ourselves or distract ourselves in all the various ways we use to distract ourselves. Currently, many of our normal ways of distracting have been taken away from us, yet our tendency to distract is magnified. Let me be clear, I am not saying distractions are bad. We need healthy distractions particularly in times of such widespread suffering. At the same time I am saying we need space to feel with awareness and presence. We need space to not talk ourselves out of our feelings. We need space to allow our own suffering even if our usual MO is to talk ourselves out of it because someone has it worse. Don’t be tempted to ignore yourself. This might feel too challenging to do alone. You might want to ask a trusted friend to be a witness for you just like Jesus did. Ask your friend to simply allow and witness. You aren’t asking them to fix and explain away your experience. If your friend falls asleep by trying to tell you not to feel this way or that others have it worse don’t let that stop you. You may need to mourn or feel angry about that, but you can keep going. If you feel safe enough you can write about how you are feeling and spend some time alone with it. Allow a Presence that is greater than you be your witness. Maybe that Presence is nature, a religious figure, a grandmotherly figure, a wise elder or your Big Self – the part of you that is eternal. You might want to find a good therapist or spiritual director. The point is to have space to allow emotion to move through you, so that wisdom and resilience can emerge. Go slowly with this. Do just a little at a time. This is a practice not a one and done kind of thing. You are building a whole new space and relationship. Take your time. Move slowly and gently and with great care.