I sat at the spot where Jesus Christ begged God to not kill him, and I wept.
Well, probably not at the spot. There’s a lot of archeological uncertainty about whether the places in Jerusalem that we connect to the events of Christ’s life are the actual locations, but over the past few centuries millions of pilgrims have made the journey to visit these spots whether they’re legit or not. The Basilica of the Agony (aka the Church of All Nations) is built on what is said to be the place where Jesus, accompanied by a trio of sleepy apostles, got down on his knees and, said “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.”
Jesus knew he was going to die – and die horribly – in the coming days. He knew that his betrayal was hours from coming, that he would be humiliated, tortured, and eventually nailed to a cross to die slowly in the hot Palestinian sun, one of the more agonizing ways to go. And he wanted no fucking part of it. It was a bad deal, a shitty deal, and it was one he didn’t feel like he had fully agreed to.
He was so upset about what was going to happen, The Gospel of Luke tells us, that he sweat blood: “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” I mean, I’ve had anxiety, but I’ve never had hematohidrosis, a real and fucked up medical condition wherein you sweat blood.
There’s no passage in the Bible that speaks to me as clearly and fully as Jesus’ agony in the garden. The idea of having made a decision and, in the moments before you get your consequences from that decision, you feel like you’ve changed your mind just feels like an experience I have had again and again. It’s why I’m so fascinated with stories of people who have survived jumping off bridges and buildings – they almost all relate the experience of being filled with instant regret the second their feet left the structure. The space between decision and consequence – this is the space that truly defines us.
I don’t believe in Jesus as Christ, but I do believe in Jesus as man. I have no question that he was a guy (named Joshua) who taught and roused rabble in Palestine in the early days of the first century. I have no question that he, like dozens or hundreds of other political and religious activists, was put to death for his efforts. I don’t believe that he rose from that death, and I have a deep skepticism about all of his supposed miracles. Even many of the things he is claimed to have said I call into question (read the excellent ZEALOT by Reza Aslan to get a picture of the Jesus who I believe lived, and the message he had that still rings true to us today).
But the reality of Christ doesn’t matter. I don’t believe in Superman either, but a lot of his stories touch me in personal ways. I don’t need Christ to have been the son of god to give his story meaning. The agony in the garden is just a great character beat, a terrific moment in a very good story.
That doesn’t explain why I wept at the Basilica of the Agony, looking at a sheet of rock that was supposedly the recipient of Christ’s red-tinged sweat. Looking back at that afternoon I’ve decided that this was the moment – not my public shaming or my getting sober – that really started me on the path that I’m on today. Because in that moment I felt something that I can’t entirely explain, but that definitely existed beyond the material.
I am, being who I am, going to try and explain it anyway.
Three summers ago I was in Jerusalem for the Jerusalem International Film Festival. It was the greatest trip of my life; Jerusalem is an incredible city, and as a history buff to walk these ancient streets and alleys was a dream come true. I was there with a group of people I didn’t really know, and while they were wonderful (some of them I still keep up with – hi, Melis, if you’re reading this!), the fact that they weren’t my usual traveling companions gave me a lot of freedom to just make my own way during the off hours.
I spent a lot of time in the Old City, the ancient part of Jerusalem that is filled with winding alleys and market stalls and crushes of people rushing past tourists. I did all the spots in there, and I spent many, many hours going through all the spots in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which is a whole essay in itself; the church is basically an enclosed theme park built over the main sites related to the death and resurrection of Christ. It’s WEIRD, it’s geographically confusing, and it’s an example of the will of man being imposed on the landscape in intense ways) and walking the Via Dolorosa.
These spaces were incredible, and there was an energy that they, as bustling pilgrimage sites, have that is like Disneyland but if you thought Goofy might take away your MS. To watch people get down on their hands and knees and kiss some filthy ass stones was at first strange and eventually powerful. Hell, I got into the flow and did the same. I think you have to give yourself over to these experiences, that to watch them from a remove does a disservice to yourself. If you’re at a holy site, treat it like a holy site.
But the Basilica of the Agony was different. It lay outside the stone walls of the Old City, and it’s nestled away at the foot of the Mount of Olives, on a gentle slope shaded by trees. It’s not easy to find (as if anything is easy to find in this stone age maze of a city), and it’s far enough from the main attractions that when I got there in the early afternoon it was totally empty. Gethsemane had been high on my spots to visit, but that apparently made me a little unique among the tourists and the pilgrims.
What I experienced in that church was profound. Part of it was certainly being in this holy place all alone – when you ascend Cavalry at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and stop in front of the spot where Christ was crucified you’re doing so in a line, being sort of moved along like livestock. Many holy spaces were like this (I started getting up really early to hit spots before the pilgrims arrived just to get some alone time there). But there was something more to the Basilica of the Agony, something ephemeral and deeply non-material.
If I were to use the language of the New Age I might say that there was an energy there. That energy came from thousands upon thousands of people who sat in that chamber and meditated on the same thing, whether intently or otherwise. They all sat there and they all meditated on the fact that Jesus Christ was really, really upset before he died.
You’re thinking, but they all meditated on how Jesus Christ had DIED in another spot, so why is this different? Well, I think the fundamental difference is what makes the story of the agony in the garden so meaningful to me – we’ve all been there. None of us has died, and few of us have been tortured. The stops on the Via Dolorosa can be powerful in their own ways, but since few of us have been flogged few of us can really understand that stuff. We get it on metaphorical and dramatic levels, sure. But it’s a rare pilgrim who has felt the bite of the whip on his or her back (for punishment. I’m sure plenty have enjoyed whips for pleasure).
But every person who has ever visited the Basilica of the Agony has felt EXACTLY what Jesus felt that night. Maybe not with the same stakes, but we have all been there, and we have all been there in the same way. Jesus went to the garden to pray, and he took Peter, John and James with him. He asked them one simple thing: stay awake with him this difficult night and pray. He asked their support in a fairly low-impact fashion. Just stay awake. Break dawn with me, he asked.
All three of those assholes fell asleep.
You’ve been there. You’ve felt that profound sense of loneliness that Jesus had that night after the Last Supper. You have felt that, no matter how well-intentioned your pals, they just weren’t there for you in the way you needed them to be there. That when the chips were truly down, when all was about to go to shit, when you couldn’t sleep because you knew you were in for a world of hurt in the morning, they didn’t have your back in the way you wanted them to.
To be fair to these idiot apostles, they couldn’t. And I don’t mean that in a prophetic way, in the way that Judas pretty much HAD to betray Jesus in order for God’s whole plan to work. I mean that we can never really be there for each other in the ways we want to be. That the fact that we experience life as separate beings makes that impossible. There’s only so much comfort that can ever be offered. Your hardest night will be spent, on an existential level, alone.
Loneliness. Regret. Fear. Jesus is second-guessing himself at this moment, and we’ve all been there as well. We know that pain. And anyone visiting that church can sit in the pews and know the pain that Jesus felt that night. They can call that pain to mind, and they can hold it and see it and, for a few moments, feel less alone with it. They can look at this spot, the place where the most important man who ever lived (this may be true even if you don’t believe in his godhood), and know that he struggled with THE EXACT SAME THINGS AS YOU HAVE. Maybe as you are right at that moment.
All of that pain – I could feel it in that small space. But more than that, I could also feel the relief. I could feel the relief of thousands of people who stood and sat there and felt less alone and who felt that existential loneliness melt away because they knew – in fact based their faith on the idea – that someone else had felt what they felt, and that he had gone through with the hard thing anyway.
There was a continuity of human experience in that chapel, and in the silence and the cool darkness it hit me so hard. I felt the terror and loneliness of Christ and I felt the fear and longing of thousands who had come before me. I felt my own fear and my own distance from others… but in that same moment I felt connected to everybody who had come before me to the chapel. More than that, I felt connected to everybody who had struggled in this way, who had lain awake, dreading the next day and all it would bring. I felt connected in a powerful, metaphysical way to everybody who had ever been alive, and it was a jolting, overwhelming moment of awakening. I burst into tears.
Such moments are almost always fleeting, and the spell was broken in an instant by the sound of someone else entering the church. There’s an irony in the idea that my overwhelming sense of connection to humanity was broken by the presence of… humanity. I sat there in the dark, eyes still leaking, and then I wandered out into the grove of olive trees outside and did what you do in the 21st century: I took a bunch of selfies.
What I felt in that church was a spiritual experience, something that put me in touch with things beyond the material. And I’m not talking about the supernatural or even the mystical – just the stuff that happens in our minds and our hearts, and the stuff that is happening in the minds and hearts of all those around us. For a moment I had a different perspective on all of it, and I saw the ways I was connected to people, not the ways I was separate from them, which is my default way of seeing the world. As with all spiritual experiences I had a momentary understanding that the universe exists beyond what we can see and touch.
That spiritual experience, I believe, was not religious in nature. It was very similar to the spiritual experiences we can have with all stories, when we truly identify and find ourselves in narratives. And it’s really like the spiritual experience you can have in a fan community, when you meet someone who has enjoyed the thing you enjoyed in the same way you did. But it’s even deeper than that because it’s about pain; pain is something we usually keep to ourselves, and the moments when we can share our pain with someone who actually understands it can be transformative.
That’s why the best stories have pain, because we get to see that someone else has felt bad in the same way we did. Pain is so isolating, and mental pain doubly so – at least if you’re shot people can see that you have a bullet wound and perhaps not ‘understand’ your pain but have an understanding that it exists. But when you’re in mental pain no one can tell. When your heart is broken there are no obvious wounds. You can stand in a room full of people and feel desperately lonely, because emotional pain is fundamentally irrational, and fundamentally experienced alone.
Except in stories. In stories we feel each other’s pain. Stories are shortcuts to that spiritual experience I had in the church; it’s rarely as intense or as clear as that experience, but it’s the same thing. It’s the opportunity to get out of the prison of our flesh and jump into someone else’s life… and understand the ways they are like us. Stories collapse the distance between us, and the collapsing of that distance is the crux of all spiritual experiences. It’s the goal, to understand that our separateness is ultimately an illusion. And by feeling a connection not just to the story of Christ but to the untold others who had felt that same connection, I had a moment where I got past the illusion. Every time I turn on the TV, every time I open a book, every time I sit down for a movie I hope for even a split second where I can again transcend that illusion.