Feb. 10-16, 2005
Gethsemane as Liminal Space
By Father Ron Rolheiser/ SUN contributing writer
First in a 7-part Lenten Series
There’s never a good time to die, to bid final good-byes, to lose health, to have a heart attack, to be diagnosed with terminal cancer, to lose friends, to be betrayed, to be misunderstood, to lose everything, to be humiliated, to have to face death and its indescribable loneliness. That’s why there’s a powerful resistance inside us towards these things.
We can take consolation in knowing that this was the case too for Jesus. He didn’t face these things either without fear, trembling, and the desire to escape. In the Garden of Gethsemane “he sweated blood” as he tried to make peace with his own loss of earthly life. The Garden of Gethsemane is, among other things, “liminal space.” What is this? Anthropologists use that expression to refer to special times in our lives when our normal situation is so uprooted so that it is possible precisely to plant new roots and take up life in a whole new way. That’s usually brought about by a major crisis, one that shakes us in the very roots of our being. Gethsemane was that for Jesus.
It’s significant that Jesus didn’t go straight from the last supper room to his crucifixion. He first spent some time readying himself. What’s incredible in his story is that he had only one hour within which to do this inner work. Imagine this scene: You’re relatively young, healthy, and active. You’ve just enjoyed a festive dinner with close friends, complete with a couple of glasses of wine. You step out of the dining room late at night and you now have one hour to ready yourself to die, one hour to say your final good-byes, to let go, to make peace with death. Sweating blood might be a mild term to describe your inner turmoil. This would surely be an intense hour.
And so it was for Jesus. That’s why his liminal time is often called his “agony in the garden” (an apt term to describe real “liminal space.”) What’s interesting too is what Scripture highlights in his suffering in Gethsemane. As we know, it never emphasizes his physical sufferings (which must have been pretty horrific). Instead it emphasizes his emotional crucifixion, the fact that he is betrayed, misunderstood, alone, morally lonely, the greatest lover in the world, with God alone as his soul mate. And what’s burning up his heart and soul in Gethsemane? Jesus, himself, expresses it in these words: “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me!” His resistance was to the necessity of it. Why death and humiliation? Couldn’t there be some other way? Couldn’t new life somehow occur without, first, dying?
In the Garden, Jesus comes to realize and accept that there isn’t any other way, that there’s a necessary connection between a certain kind of suffering, a certain letting go, a certain humiliation, and the very possibility of coming to new life. Why that necessity? What do we ultimately sweat blood over? Perhaps Job put it best: “Naked I came into this world and naked I leave it again.” We are born alone, without possessing anything: clothing, a language, the capacity to take care of ourselves, achievements, trophies, degrees, security, a family, a spouse, a friend, a reputation, a job, a house, a soul mate. When we exit the planet, we will be like that again, alone and naked. But it’s precisely that nakedness, helplessness, and vulnerability that makes for liminal space, space within which God can give us something new, beyond what we already have.
There are times when we sense this, sense its necessity, and sense too that one day, perhaps soon, we will, like Jesus in the Garden, have to make peace with the fact that we are soon to exit this life, alone, but for our hope in God. That’s Gethsemane, the place and the experience. Our own prayer there, I suspect, will be less about necessity than about timing: “Lord, let this cup be delayed! Not yet! I know it’s inevitable, but just give me more time, more years, more experience, more life first!”
To feel that way is understandable and, if we’re young, even a sign of health. Nobody should want to die or want to give up the good things of this life. But Gethsemane awaits us all. Most of us, however, will not enter this garden of liminal space voluntarily, as did Jesus (“Nobody takes my life, I give it up freely!”). Most of us will enter it by conscription, but just as really, on that day when a doctor tells us we have terminal cancer or we suffer a heart attack or something else irretrievably and forever alters our lives.
When that does happen, and it will happen one way or the other to all of us, it’s helpful to know that we’re in liminal space, inside a new womb, undergoing a new gestation, waiting for new birth — and that it’s okay to sweat a little blood, ask God some questions, and feel resistance in every cell of our being.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX (on sabbatical until August 2005). He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.