Thomas Merton described the spiritual death of the Dark Night of the Soul as “the awful dereliction of the soul closed in upon itself.” This seems an apt description of what Jesus experienced on the last full day of his life, also known as Maundy Thursday, when all those he loved abandoned him.
On the evening of Maundy Thursday many years ago, in the aftermath of my divorce, I entered a dimly lit sanctuary. Two glowing candles adorned the altar in a darkened sanctuary amid crosses shrouded in red linens, and I began, oddly, to feel Jesus’ death close in on me.
“Maundy” originated from the Latin mandautam, which means “command.” Jesus left his followers commands that night. “That is what Maundy Thursday is about,” our rector said. “Jesus’ command was embodied in the words, ‘As I have washed your feet, so you wash one another’s.’”
When he and his followers went to the garden that last night of his life, Jesus had asked his friends to stay and pray. But they fell asleep. He went out alone and prayed, nose to the ground, tortured and weeping, snorting like a mule. I tried to picture it: His hands like ropes, thick and rough. Those hands that could snap my arm. But the man with ropes for hands I did not fear. He did not snap the arms of women. He touched women and allowed women to touch him. One kissed his feet. I pictured him alone in the garden that night, wetness covering him and howling like a mule and I wanted to kiss him. I imagined him clutching my quail-bone wrist and leading me in slow steps. He would know my legs were weak. He would turn to say, ‘Be careful and Watch there,’ and point to a patch of ground where the earth had collapsed in on itself. My heart would spasm and I’d lose my breath. ‘I need to stop,’ I would say. He would turn. ‘I’ll carry you.’ I imagined him throwing his cloak over a shoulder smelling like oil and sweat, rough hands under my arms and legs. He would hoist me up and I would lose my face in his cloak and smell the sweat and oil from the olive groves. I wondered how many others he had carried this way; where he got the strength. I wondered if they loved him as I loved him. He would carry me because my bones were weak and my will could not follow on its own. I would kiss that face, sweat pouring out of him. I would wipe it clean and speak comfort to him so he would know the shalom of human consolation. I would have touched him in the brush as he lay on the ground. I would have walked to him and put my knees in the dirt and lay my hand on his hair and told him he didn’t have to help people anymore. He didn’t have to help me. I know exactly how I would have touched him. I felt like I would have died with him that night — the only time in his short lifetime when he hedged. He asked if there might not be another way. He knew there wasn’t, but had to ask.
That night in the garden, after that praying, he loosened the knot that tied him up inside–only a groan could free it–and he rose to meet his fate. Did the aching leave him? Did the dread and indecision retreat? They roughed him up. They struck him when he was down. They demeaned and humiliated him. What else could they do to the One who had laid bare their consciences?
He went to the darkness alone. And that night, in that dark sanctuary, in the grief of my own betrayals, I felt he was asking me to follow. He asked me to take his hand and go with him into the darkness because that was the only way through to the other side, to life. Could my faith-life, until then, have been only a half-life? Maybe all this time I too had hedged — looking for another way, a loop-hole, a way to finesse it. Could it be I had never really taken this hand and followed him to die this death? Could it be I had never really found life?
Then we sang. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? I didn’t join in at first. I heard myself say, No, I wasn’t there. What did it look like? What did it sound like? What did it smell like? I imagined the smell of lentils and wine, of cinnamon and fire and sweat and dirty feet. I pictured wetness in peoples’ eyes, though I imagined the seeing wasn’t as bad as the smelling. There was a hyssop branch and a purple robe and a sponge and a flinty spear. I imagined the hillside smelling of pottage and smoke and burning fat and the sweetness of myrrh. And bodily smells, sweat, waste, blood, the blending of the foul with the sweet. Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? I wasn’t, I heard myself say. But I’m here now. I’m thinking about it.
My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant? Why do You ignore my cries for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but You do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief. My life is poured out like water. All my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me. My strength has dried up like unbaked clay. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead. My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs; an evil gang closes in on me. They have pierced my hands and feet. I can count every bone in my body. My enemies stare at me and gloat. They divide my clothes among themselves and throw dice for my garments.
After the service had ended, in the silence of that dark sanctuary, people started stripping the altar. The candles went out and were carried off. The palm branches, red shrouds over crosses, the red altar covering — all were taken away, as were the crosses themselves, save one. It stood alone on the table, the red cloth replaced with black. Everything was gone except that one black-shrouded cross. The silence, the emptiness, the darkness, the heaviness of all the sadness in the world closed in.
What was my greatest fear? I heard myself say, Lay it down in the darkness where he laid down his fear. My deepest, most intimate, tortured, unresolved heartbeat must go in to the darkness and die where he died. The nails went through his wrists and life was wrung out of his beating heart. His aching had been long gone. My aching made me ready to receive this death. I had to feel it as he felt it, defenseless, vulnerable. Lay it down. Put it where he died. Take it to his death. Is this where my madness has led me? To Your death? Only the mad can see it. Take my hand. I’ll follow you. Only take my hand. May Your blessing rest on Your people. The grave wraps ropes around me. You open heaven. Dark storm clouds are beneath Your feet. You shroud Yourself in darkness.
(Portions of this narrative were taken from my book On Broken Legs, NavPress, 2004.)
Almighty God, bestow upon us the meaning of words, the light of understanding, the nobility of diction, and the faith of the true nature. And grant that what we believe we may also speak.
Saint Hilary (c. 315-368), Bishop of Poitiers
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