I was honored by Msgr. Tom Sullivan to be invited to give a reflection for the September 30, 2019 Novena to St. Joseph. The passage I chose to base my reflection on was Luke 22:39-46.
The Agony in the Garden
39 Then going out, he went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him.
40 When he arrived at the place he said to them, “Pray that you may not undergo the test.”
41 After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed,
42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.”
43 And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.
44 He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.
45 When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief.
46 He said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test.”
You can listen to a recording of the reflection here.
Thank you, Msgr. Tom, for this important novena. I thought your message inviting me to speak must have been a mistake when I saw it. I am honored because of the goodness of the one who invited me. And I am grateful to the Holy Spirit for the ever-surprising paths along which I am led.
As a physician assistant, I have cared for countless people in sickness. Some of you know I also cared for my mother during her 15-month road to death from leukemia. She died last November. We prayed for her at this novena the last two years.
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” Jesus is, of course, talking about his Passion and death.
He first talks of this cup to James and John when they asked to sit at his right hand and his left. “You will indeed drink my cup,” he tells them. With only one in ten of us dying suddenly, most of us will drink the cup of physical suffering before we die. Yet may I be so blessed as to prepare myself spiritually through the sacraments and contemplating the Face of God before I die.
Jesus next talks of the cup at the Last Supper. It is the cup of the new covenant, of our salvation, poured out for the forgiveness of our sins; it is the very source and summit of our whole faith! Yet that same night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asks the Father to take that cup away.
By the time Jesus reached Gethsemane, his beloved foster father, Saint Joseph, had died; he and our Blessed Mother grieved together. On his way to Jerusalem, he passed through Nain, and in the gospel, we hear, “As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Was he thinking of Mary’s grief when his crucified body would be placed in her arms?
When Jesus asks that the cup be taken away, he was not yet physically suffering, but his mental anguish was so great that his sweat became like drops of blood. Peter, James, and John were too full of grief to stay awake knowing what was to come. An angel came to strengthen Jesus, just as God’s grace comes to strengthen us in our sufferings when we are doing his will.
I am also a secular Carmelite novice, and tomorrow is the feast day of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. She endured tremendous physical suffering when dying of tuberculosis. Morphine was available, but Carmelites would forego it as an act of redemptive suffering.
Her final words to her prioress evoke Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross:
“O Mother, I assure you, the chalice is filled to the brim!”
“God is surely not going to abandon me!”
“He has never abandoned me before!”
“Yes, my God, everything that You will, but have pity on me!”
“Little sisters, my little sisters, pray for me!”
She asked that all poisonous medications be kept out of her reach. “What a grace it is to have faith!” she said. “If I had no faith, I would have inflicted death on myself without hesitating a moment!”
Those who seek assisted suicide, studies show, are strikingly unreligious and have an inordinate need for control. Besides having no faith, they are also unlike St. Therese in her terminal illness because we know from state reports that they do not have unbearable physical suffering. They are like Jesus in the Garden fearing the suffering that is to come. For Jesus, his agony arose from knowing the coming brutal humiliation and torture of his Passion. Jesus foregoes his human will and drinks the cup that brings about the greatest act of love in the history of humankind, opening the door to eternal salvation to those who likewise follow the God’s will over their own.
Those who seek assisted suicide are certainly unreligious because they cannot bear to have God in control. They want to drink the cup of their own will, filled with deadly poison, to be the masters of their own deaths.
That control is more important that those around them they hurt by that choice.
That control is more important than the integrity of the medical profession from whom they demand help for this.
That control is more important than allowing society to go on protecting human life by not sanctioning the killing of the sick and disabled, even if they ask.
Tradition tells us that when the apostle John was unknowingly given a poisoned cup, he blessed it, and the poison came out in the form of a snake. May assisted suicide and euthanasia likewise be drawn out from our world.
Mom faced the agony of Jesus the day she said good-bye to her Dana Farber treatment team. Nothing was left to stem the progression of the disease; her twice-weekly transfusions had become a greater burden than the benefit they were giving her. She fearfully asked, “What if I start bleeding uncontrollably in my mouth and choke?” I had wondered the same thing.
Her doctor looked at me and said, “If there is anything you can’t handle at home, bring her here and we will take care of her.” We had already discussed sedation to the point of unconsciousness should that arise. We can manage physical suffering. To calm Mom’s mental anguish from the fear of not knowing what she would suffer from then until the moment of her death, all she asked was that I not leave her side. That was enough.
As disciples of Christ, we always seek to do the will of God—to surrender our control and drink the cup of his immense goodness and perfection.
Let us pray for the sick as we are doing this evening like St. Therese asked of her little Carmelite sisters.
Let us tend to those who are suffering rather than be overcome by our own grief the way Peter, James, and John were.
Let us strengthen the fearful like the angel strengthened Jesus in the time of his great agony.
Let us be at the side of the dying, as Jesus and Mary were at the side of St. Joseph, so that they, too, may have a happy death.