THE PRAYER OF GETHSEMANE: LOVE AND PAIN, St. Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #13

In the previous chapter, Sophrony introduced us to the concepts of liturgical prayer and eucharistic life, even outside liturgy.

In this chapter he calls on us to learn from Christ’s prayer of Gethsemane.

Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.

The common assumption is that, when Christ asks his father to remove the cup from him, he refers to his physical suffering and humiliation.

Sophrony invalidates this assumption. For him the “cup” signifies the pain that profound love for others emanates. 

He descended into hell, into the most painful hell of all, the hell of love.

He does not make light of physical suffering. He simply reminds us that, after all, as we all know from experience, “the soul can be more dreadfully wounded than the body.”

It is so much easier for us to understand a moment of hesitation and fear as Christ contemplates the martyrdom ahead of him. We can immediately identify with this fear. Yet this is, according to Sophrony, because “we lack existential knowledge of such love and so its permanent significance is hidden from us.”

Just imagine then, how much of God’s nature and the full experience of love are hidden from us.

As parents, we get a small glimpse of the experience of pain, generated by too much love. We agonize over the possibility of harm, danger or illness befalling our children. And there are moments when we are so much filled with love for them that it hurts us to contemplate their fragility and to understand the limits in our ability to protect them from all evil.  

Multiply this love by millions and millions to begin to get even a tiny glimpse into the magnitude of the love Christ has for us. Yet even such small glimpse, or even the desire for it, paves our path to theosis.

What then is this love we strive to experience through prayer?

Sophrony describes this experience as “light that cannot be extinguished;” a connection with all men since our heart is moved by empathy for them.  

In St. John’s version of the prayer of Gethsemane, Christ’s becomes united with the entire human race, rather than frozen and isolated in his fear:

“Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that your Son may glorify you— just as you have given him authority over all humanity, so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him.

Such perfect love may intimidate others, Sophrony states:

There is nothing more dreadful than Christ – Truth

Fear, in fact, might be the source of their rejection of Christ:

… a peculiar animal instinct of the flesh quickly tells us that to follow     him involves a readiness to be crucified for love of him…

We, ordinary mortals, instinctively avoid physical pain, discomfort, rejection, and sorrow. The radicalism of Christianity is the rejection of all these human habits, instincts, and assumptions. In essence, as Sophrony tells us, Christ calls for “a radical Altering of our whole life…”

But the rewards are great:

Sophrony juxtaposes heart to mere theory. “Christianity,” he says, “so far surpasses the ordinary understanding that the praying heart does not venture to preach the gospel word.”  In trying to explain logically the mystery of Christ, people “reduce him to dimensions of their own making, which debases the Gospels to the level of moralistic doctrine.”

This is where prayer comes in. Instead of fitting Christ into our limited understanding of him, we enter the prayer of Gethsemane and become Christ-like. When….

 “a shadow of a likeness to the Gethsemane prayer is granted him, man then transcends the boundaries of his own individuality and enters into a new form of being—personal being in the likeness of Christ. By participating in the suffering of his divine love we, too, in spirit can experience a little of his death and of  the power of his resurrection.”

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