In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.

 
 
 

The concept of self-isolation, so prevalent at present, recalls one of the moments of Jesus’ supreme isolation: the Agony in the Garden.  (The other moment being the Dereliction on the Cross.)

          Something strange befalls Jesus before his arrest and subsequent Passion and Death.  We see him in the upper room, calm, confident, master of his destiny.  He has prophesied with clarity that he must go through suffering and death to win redemption and eternal life for all humanity.  He is intensely aware of the hostility and machinations of the traitor, Judas.  He seems totally in control.  Yet on leaving the Cenacle and reaching Gethsemane, he is overwhelmed by inexpressible anguish.  It lasts as long as he prays and leaves him when those who come to arrest him arrive.  Once again he is magnificently in command.  What has happened?

          Before looking at the successive events, we note their setting.  They take place in a garden, an unmistakable reference to the story of Paradise, Adam and the Fall.  “As the new Adam”, writes Andre Feuillet, “Jesus wages a terrible combat, at the end of which he chooses God in the name of the whole of humanity, in exact contrast to the first Adam who, vanquished by the power of the devil, had chosen a proud autonomy from God and dragged humanity down in his fall.”  Adam’s autonomy: a form of self-isolation out of pride.  Jesus’ isolation: the prelude to his self-offering for the human race in obedience to the Father’s will.

          Turning to what happens in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says to the eight disciples: “Sit here, while I go yonder and pray.”  There is an echo here of the sacrifice of Abraham, who tells his servants at Moriah: “Stay here … while the boy and I go over yonder.”  In Gethsemane, too, there is an impending sacrifice.  As well as being asked to remain, Peter, James and John, the three chosen disciples are also asked to watch and pray with Jesus.  He asks, in other words, for human and spiritual accompaniment in his isolation.  He repeats the phrase “watch with me”, when he finds them asleep: “Could you not watch with me one hour?”  Not only do the words “with me” define discipleship but they also undergird the central fact of our faith, the Incarnation, God with us.  He is the One who is and always will be “with us”, but at the hour of interior trial, he asks us to be with Him.  The humility of God who asks for help from his creatures.

          The hour of darkness and dread begins for Jesus.  There is a prefigurative text in Exodus 20:21: “The people stood afar off and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”  He goes out to meet it voluntarily; it does not fall upon him and overwhelm him.  Yet something occurs in the darkness which is too much for his human frame.  The agony in the garden is a much debated episode.  The humble mystic Bl Anne Catherine expresses her intuition, perhaps not in precise theological terms, but arrestingly: “He caused his divinity to return into the Most Holy Trinity”; “He permitted his most holy humanity to veil his Divinity”; “I saw the divine nature of the Son withdrawn, as it were, into the Father’s bosom”.  The message is that “his most innocent and true humanity supported by the love of his human heart alone” wanted to endure the agony as a man for the sake of man’s sin – sin as an “it” “the whole anguish of the human condition” (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol 2).  As a man, he experiences it as an overwhelming tide.  Mark (14:35) says: “he fell on the ground and prayed”; Matthew (26:39) that “he fell on his face”; Luke (22:41) that “he knelt down”.  What is clear is the unbearable intensity of the moment, Jesus’ extreme isolation and his prayer.  This is foretold in Is 53 of the Suffering Servant, the one who isolates himself in order to bear the iniquities of the many and make them “be accounted righteous” (11).

          There is, firstly, in Jesus’ agony a natural (one hesitates to say, psychological) solitude.  No one else can do or bear what he is about to do and bear.  There is the tension between the natural instinct for life and the sense of approaching bodily death.  Even more, here is “Life itself before the abyss of the full power of destruction, evil and enmity with God” (Pope Benedict).  It is commonly believed (and experienced by mystics) that he saw in frightful visions all the sins of humanity passing before his eyes in indescribable detail, including yours and mine.  All crimes in every age; the disunion in His Body the Church; the sacrileges committed against his Sacred Body and Precious Blood; sins of the spirit; sins of the flesh; man’s indifference and betrayals; the sufferings he is about to endure in his Passion, as a result of the treachery of Judas, his intimate friend and disciple.  There is the suggestion, too, that the devil mocks and tempts Jesus with the possibility of failure, the pointlessness of such suffering in view of man’s ingratitude.

          Then there is spiritual solitude; yet Jesus was used to praying alone; there are several texts attesting to his solitary communion with the Father.  It was strengthening to his human nature, so much so that he could say: “He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone” (Jn 8:29).  And now he feels alone.  “Becoming sin” for our sake, identified with sinners, he experiences the Father of justice through their eyes and the loneliness of those who are estranged from God.  His human fear and anguish cannot, therefore, be explained in wholly psychological terms.  Says von Balthasar: “It can be explained only in terms of a conflict which is waged between the God who is in heaven and the God who is on earth substituting for sinners.”  A great mystery here.  Like Jacob at Penuel, Jesus is left alone as the spiritual night falls, a prelude to wrestling with God, though not as with an adversary, not as if he wants to prevail over the Father.  He cries: Abba, a filial, trusting word.  The struggle is to conform the human will to the divine will.  The strain of taking on himself “the destructive burden of guilt” (Pope Benedict) is intolerable; “and being in an agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.”  Blaise Pascal puts these words in his mouth: “I thought of you in my agony; I spilled drops of blood for you.”  Jesus bears the individual sins of every man and woman.

          He speaks with the Father: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; Remove this cup from me.”  Possible, yes, from the point of view of the Father’s power, comments Origen, but not possible from the point of view of his justice.  Without the drinking of the cup, mankind incapable of expiating its own sin, would not be saved.  But when Christ has drunk it, humanity’s enmity with God is changed into obedience.  “We are all now present within the Son’s obedience; we are all drawn into sonship” (Pope Benedict, vol 2, p161).

          Remove this cup from me.  In the image of the chalice, there is reference to the cup of wrath, which symbolises the justice of God and his opposition to evil.  There is the Eucharistic cup of sacrifice and thanksgiving; and there is the symbolic cup of his Passion.  All his life on earth, Christ longed to drink this cup; and now at his appointed hour, his human nature revolts.

          Yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.  On one level, the most important level, these moving words are easy to understand.  It is the language of the heart.  Yet much ink has been spilt in an attempt to grasp their meaning: to explain how there can be two wills in Christ, who is one divine Person in two natures.  Here is Pope Benedict’s exposition, based on St Maximus of Turin: “In Jesus, the ‘natural will’ of the human nature is present but there is only one ‘personal will’ … which draws the natural will into itself.  And this is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will.  In becoming attuned to the divine will, it experiences its fulfilment, not its annihilation.”  However, on account of the Fall and our actual sins, our will now has a tendency to resist the divine will.  Jesus takes this resistance upon and into himself and, in his struggle, “elevates our recalcitrant nature to become its real self.”  The natural will in Jesus, which like ours, shrank from destruction, and the filial will which abandoned itself to the Father’s will merge, in his agony, into “a unity deep within the heart of Jesus’ human existence.”  Such is the victory of Christ, not only over human weakness in the face of suffering and death, but also over original sin and the false autonomy of the human will, which is really servitude.  The freedom he wins for us consists in obedience to the Father’s will.

          Matthew’s Gospel shows the progression of the struggle in obedience.  The second time he prays, after appealing to the disciples in vain, he says: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, they will be done” (26:42).  Luke mentions the angel from heaven who strengthens him.  Our mystic, who gives no quarter in her descriptions of the terrors which assail him, insists, nevertheless, that there were also visions of past and future Blessed, who are united with him in his Passion.  Jesus, she says, looked on this immense army of the faithful with deep emotion and drew strength and consolation from it.

          Now, the focus falls on the disciples.  In Matthew, Jesus finds them sleeping; in Mark, there is the detail that their eyes were heavy and that they did not know what to answer him; in Luke that they were sleeping from sorrow.  It is remarked that there is something unusual about their sleep.  It is not only the result of physical and emotional fatigue, but more akin to the sleep of dread which fell on Abraham before the making of the Covenant; or again, to the stupor of the three disciples on Mount Tabor.  It is man’s reaction to the divine, his incapacity to bear the presence of God, whether in the splendour of the Transfiguration or, as here, in Christ’s supreme humiliation.  The disciples have to wait till Pentecost, before they are gifted with the ability to participate fully in either the Lord’s Passion or His glory.  Nevertheless, they are not exempt from the duty to watch and pray.  Von Balthasar sees the disciples’ sleep as a failure in obedience, since they are unable to utter the “yes” of faith to the bitter end.  A more vigorous obedience of faith is required of the three close disciples, because, in his view, they are the representatives of those chosen to adopt the Counsels and the priesthood.  “The disciples lag behind their own calling; they leave the Lord alone”, isolated.  They are not “with” him.  While they did “not produce the expected echo to Jesus’ resounding “yes”, the women nevertheless remained faithful.  It fell to Mary (Magdalene), in anointing him in advance of his burial, to pronounce “an extravagant word of self-surrendering consent.    It is a consent which fully accepts the Passion of the Beloved and this is more difficult than assuming the hardest suffering oneself.  Thus Mary with her visible gesture is like an image of the final fidelity, which was active invisibly in the Mother’s word of assent.”  Like the Mother of God, like the Magdalene, we also, as women religious, try to shake off our drowsiness and utter our own echo of assent to the Lord’s redeeming work, as we approach Passion Sunday.