Dear Daughters of St. Philip Neri,
The following reflection invites us to search our hearts to see if we find therein the abiding sorrow of those who experienced our Lord's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. For this sorrow, unlike other forms, brings on spring and awakens new life. Such sorrow, the author tells us, "is a holy possession and a special gift of God"; the grief known by those most intimate with the Lord's Passion - the Mother of Sorrows, St. John and Mary Magdalen. As those few who remained with the Lord, "what a wonderful sun of redemptive love arose out of this sea of sorrow and remained ever afterwards as a commanding power and source of happiness in their lives!" Likewise if we were to linger among the few ancient olive trees in the Garden they should whisper to us of the first few steps of the Silent Beggar on the sorrowful way of the Cross. We should make ourselves beggars before them and the other faithful witnesses; that they would bestow alms upon us that we too might know the grace of sharing in their compassion for the Lord and in some small way too may sweeten His bitter chalice.
If we take hold of the grace they possess we can find ourselves in that Garden - gazing upon the Silent Anchorite of the Tabernacle. He stands before us not as God possessed of untold wealth but alone, despised and scorned - with a broken heart. How will you respond? "Here your Redeemer stands before you, lifts up His broken Heart, and begs for the gift of love. What will you do?"
“My heart hath expected reproach and misery; and I looked for one that would grieve together with me, but there was none: and for one that would comfort me, and I found none” (Ps. 68, 21).
IN the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ began His Passion, it is said there are still eight of the ancient olive trees left. They are weak and brittle with age, and need props to keep them straight. In the late hours of the evening, when the wind comes from the Red Sea, a mysterious whispering is heard in their crowns, quite different from that of the other trees. Their whispering is merely an unintelligible sound, whereas that of these ancient olives resembles the words which men speak to one another. Often there is mixed with it a peculiar painful groaning, such as might issue from a sorrowful, grief-laden heart. It has been thus for two thousand years. The event which makes these venerable trees so sad and sorrowful must be a true fact which engraved itself deeply into their nature. Otherwise time, which heals all wounds, would have gradually abated their sorrow, and they would no longer keep lonely vigil in the garden and utter heart-rending sighs while men are asleep.
Perhaps it will do them good if we sit down beneath them for a while and compassionately ask them to share their grief with us. Everyone who is sick or sorrowful like sympathy. Grief which is shared by others is easier to bear. But perhaps this rule does not apply here. There is another kind of sorrow, which has only the outward form of sorrow, but in reality is like beneficent sunshine, which brings on spring and awakens new life. Such sorrow is a holy possession and a special gift of God. Of this kind was the grief of the Mother of Sorrows, as well as that of St. John and Mary Magdalen. They were allowed to witness the death of Jesus on the Cross. Truly their hearts were torn and their grief was great. Yet what a wonderful sun of redemptive love arose out of this sea of sorrow and remained ever afterwards as a commanding power and source of happiness in their lives! All the thoughts, deeds, meditations, feelings of these chosen servants of God were from that hour concerned only with the Redeemer. And whoever meditates deeply and strives upward, looks on these chosen friends of Jesus with a sort of holy envy and would gladly exchange all earthly happiness for their grief. Yet they bear up as best they can, and send a joyful magnificat to Heaven in thanksgiving for this profound, yet fruitful grief.
It is thus with those ancient olive trees in Gethsemane. By a special grace from above they were allowed to witness the first steps of the silent Beggar on the sorrowful way of the Cross. No doubt they were possessed by that strange something which weak-sighted mortals call grief, but which manifests itself to the initiated as the highest of graces. And when we ask them to tell us of their sorrow, it is by no means a benefit that we generously offer, as if we could lessen their grief, but rather an alms which we ask of them. They gladly bestow this alms on us, for it is their ardent wish that our hearts should be filled with compassion for the sorrowful Lord and that we should be inspired to lessen His grief by acts of love and atonement. But because Jesus was omniscient and knew all this in advance, they did their share of sweetening His bitter chalice and in kindling the light of a little joy in His agonizing face. This is their thanks for being chosen.
How hard and deeply affecting was the beggar’s errand of the silent Anchorite. Look at the sun! Every morning he rises to gladden and refresh man. And when he sets in the evening, after a day spent in hard labor, what glorious hours he can look back upon! So many million drops of dew he has turned into diamonds; so many germs which lay in the cold bosom of the earth he has made fruitful, and so many flowers he has caressed ad endowed with beautiful colours! And to how many human beings has he brought joy and comfort! After such a survey he can say with satisfaction: “I went by and did nothing but good.” Certainly that was not a difficult thing, owing to the sun’s abundance of light and warmth; even if he were to send down oceans of sunshine every hour, he would be none the poorer.
Unexpectedly a fearful catastrophe happens, and we see the same sun, hitherto the greatest comforter of humanity, compelled to remove his shining garments and leave his path of light above. An untoward fate has deprived him of his riches. Now he lives on earth and wanders through dusty, dirty streets, breathing gloom and fog. Wretched rags cover his shoulders, and frost and cold cause his limbs to tremble. Thus he wanders about, knocking at every door, appealing to every flower and to every man, and begging for a little light and warmth. Who would not be moved to pity by such a sight! No eye would remain dry and no one would turn the poor beggar away from his doorstep.
Was Jesus not a sun, of a much higher kind? Out of the dark night He once rose, as it were, in the stable of Bethlehem, stood over the heads of mankind, and poured forth His light and warmth. That light was truth, and that warmth was grace. The poor shepherds experienced it, and the wise men from the East, old Simeon and Anna, the prophetess. This Sun displayed its full brilliance when Jesus was thirty years old. He dried the tears of men and healed their sorrows. He taught the blind to see and the dumb to speak. He expelled devils and broke the fetters of sin. In short, wherever He went, blessings poured from His lips, and His hands worked miracles for the benefit of men. What the prophet writes of the sun in the firmament: “And there is no one that can hide himself from his heat” (Ps. 18, 7), applied with even great truth to that Sun of love and justice. “Of his fullness we have all received” (John 1, 16). Hence, when the people united in a great procession on Palm Sunday, cut branches from the trees and spread their clothes on the street for Jesus to walk on, and exclaimed: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Hail to him who cometh in the name of God!” – we must exclaim “Euge, Euge! ‘tis well, ‘tis will!” (Ps. 69, 4).
Yet scarcely five days later, on Holy Thursday, the eight ancient trees in Gethsemane were witnesses how the much fêted Messias in a few hours became the poorest of the poor and was forced to take up the beggars staff and beg for alms. Hos this picture must have horrified them! In their own way, no doubt, they earnestly entreated the moon: “Lose your light! Leave your place in the heavens, so that this horrible sight may no longer torment us!” Yet this could not happen without a command from above, and so they saw the Son of God in unutterable agony, His face was deadly wan, his brow covered with bloody sweat, His heart and mind filled with the horror of desolation, anxiety, and grief. Thus He went staggering to the disciples and begged them for a drop of comfort. But they were asleep! Poor Jesus! Accustomed from eternity to sit at the richest table, and now lying like poor Lazarus in the entrance hall, begging for crumbs, and even these are denied Him. “Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and ye gates thereof, be very deolate.” (Jer. 2, 12).
Immense misfortune, unexpectedly viewed, makes the spirit of mortals stiffen. Feeling for everything else disappears, and only one thing remains: the stark view of misfortune, and everything one says, thinks, and speaks, centres round that one idea. So it happened with those ancient olive trees in that dread hour. Hence they still stand in their old place; life and progress go on around them, but they heed it not, and only converse together about that fearful scene of Holy Thursday.
The prophet Micheas once upon a time proclaimed to the Jews a fearful judgement: “O my people, what have I done to thee, or in what have I molested thee? Answer thou me. For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and delivered thee out of the house of slaves: and I sent before thy face Moses, and Aaron, and Mary. O my people, remember, I pray thee, what Balach the King of Moab purposed: and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him…That thou mightiest know the justices of the Lord! And I therefore began to strike thee with desolation for thy sins. Thou shalt eat, but shalt not be filled: and thy humiliation shall be in the midst of thee: and thou shalt take hold, but shalt not save: and those whom thou shalt save, I will give up to the sword. Thou shalt sow, but shalt not reap: thou shalt tread the olives, but shalt not be anointed with the oil: and the new wine, but shalt not drink the wine. For thou hast kept the statues of Amri, and all the works of the house of Achab: and thou hast walked according to their wills, that I should make thee a desolation, and the inhabitants thereof a hissing, and you shall bear the reproach of my people!” (Mich. 6, 3 sqq., 13sqq.).
Might not the silent Anchorite in the tabernacle have proclaimed an even sterner judgement? Certainly Yahweh’s love and compassion had been poured out lavishly over the people of Israel. But the silent Anchorite in the nineteen centuries that have passed since His death, has given humanity infinitely more. Every tabernacle in the wide world—and their number is thousands—was like a sun, sending ever new floods of light and life into towns and villages. He had a right to expect men to be grateful, to bend their knees before the holy tent, with incense in their hands and songs of jubilation on their lips, and to give Him thanks, and more thanks, and ever more thanks. But, alas, they did not come! The holy places were deserted and empty, and when with great difficulty the bells had gathered a few worshippers, they stood there as unthinking and cold as if they were made of stone and had no feelings. Their lips were silent, and their hearts were diverted from the tabernacle by idle trifles. Worse than that! They laughed, and chattered in the presence of Him before whom the heavens bow low and tremble. Sacrilegious hands even broke open the tabernacle, and scattered the sacred hosts on the ground, while they took the lifeless gold as booty. How much more reason had the Divine Anchorite than Yahweh for sitting in judgement on this wicked people and inflicting a severe punishment on them! and instead of that? … He takes His beggar’s staff and asks for an alms of love!
My dear reader! The Silent Anchorite stands before you, not as a God possessed of untold wealth, no, as on despised and scorned, with a broken heart, like a mother sneered at by her own children and turned out on the streets. Often, as you walk along the street, you meet a cripple or a blind man who holds out his hat. Are you not moved by pity to throw him a gift? And here your Redeemer stands before you, lifts up His broken Heart, and begs for the gift of love. What will you do? Will you act as did the Levite and the priest? Or will you be the Good Samaritan!
You must try by means of your presence to pour a little oil and wine in that most painful of all wounds, hoping that it may heal. Do thou, O silent Anchorite in the tabernacle, remember this pious intention when we stand before Thee one day as our eternal Judge!
The Silent Anchorite of the Tabernacle
Rev. F.X. Esser, S.J.