The Petitionary Prayer of Gethsemane in the Event of Divine Desire: Faith’s Undoing or Refiner’s Fire?
Composing this essay has been difficult. I suspect that much of my difficulty in writing it resides in the fact that, in many ways, this piece embodies the liminal state of religious studies that I try to highlight herein. Professor Ellen Armour describes this branch of academia as “a site where symptoms of the erosion of modernity have become legible,” and her metaphor of erosion is also apt for this paper.1 Your reading of this essay will be much like my writing of it, more like scrambling across scree on a mountainside than following a well-marked, easy path to an obvious peak.
Something like the erosion on such a slope will be plain to you, particularly at first. In the beginning I ask you to jump from rock to rock, across tenuous terrain where new landmarks are struggling to establish themselves: from theologian Sarah Coakley’s fieldwork on divine desire within charismatic parishes to our own preparedness to take up work like Coakley’s, work that theologian Nate Kerr hails for recovering the long fallow relationship between systematic theology and spiritual experience.2
When he celebrates Coakley’s work as both signaling and propagating welcome shifts on the academic theological landscape—shifts in which we recognize that theology’s critical task is fundamentally informed by religious practice and spiritual experience—Kerr is surely on to something. However, before we celebrate Coakley’s project as the beginning of a new era in theological production, it seems that we should also consider Armour’s insight: although the contemporary academic study of religion is “a site where symptoms of the erosion of modernity have become legible,” scholars of religion have hardly transcended post-Enlightenment modernity’s epistemological paradigms.3 I hope you will notice what I see when wending my way on the path laid out below: like religious studies, the broader landscape of theological studies is unstable because the waning of modernity is not yet completed. Adherents to “postmodern” theologies still cling to some of modernity’s precipices—paradigms that serve to dichotomize desire and discernment, experience and erudition. Our coming to existential terms with the notion that meaningful theological output must stem from lived realities infused with divine desire will still require challenging work for most of us.
Our discomfort with letting go of the crumbling precipices of modernity is likely related to basic, affective experiences of fear that then inform our theologies. In what follows, I will push us to loosen our grip on those old securities. By considering our petitionary prayers and the fears that surface there, I will explore our stubborn theological mishandling of desire and discernment as well as the ways in which the Holy Spirit may be present in our emotive pleasures and pains. Stepping out onto scree in this fashion might get uncomfortable and the footing may seem unsure, but my prayer is that seeking authentic engagement with these hazardous facets of our participation in Christ’s movement from cross to empty tomb will be illuminating. Furthermore, I pray that this journey will itself be emblematic of the way construction rises from erosion and that the Holy Spirit, like a pillar of flame in the desert, will lead us toward oases where this work is already happening and may continue to take root.
In the late 1980s, Professor Coakley conducted fieldwork for the Church of England Doctrine Commission in two congregations that were deeply influenced by the contemporary charismatic movement in the Anglican fellowship. Coakley recounts the details of her fieldwork in the first volume of her forthcoming systematic theology, God, Sexuality and the Self. As she studied questions of ecclesial practice and pneumatology, Coakley took particular note of congregant beliefs informing and informed by prayer. She observed that nearly all of her interviewees assumed that “joyousness” should prevail in their lives as Christians. These believers thus associated spells of spiritual “dryness” and episodes of psychological and emotional depression with bodily frailty rather than with any work of the Holy Spirit. Only the smallest minority suggested that passing through a desert in one’s prayer life might be symptomatic of Spirit-guided growing pains or that the depression of spiritual desolation could be a Spirit-infused means of participating in Christ’s posture at Gethsemane.4
In light of these findings, Coakley muses, “It may be that the charismatic movement within Anglicanism was facing a dilemma . . . : is the Spirit only to be a ‘triumphalist’ Spirit, bearer of joy and positive ‘feeling’? Or, if this is Christ’s Spirit, breathed out of his scarred body, ‘one in being’ (homoousios) with Father and Son, must one not allow as much for the fire of purgation (T. S. Eliot’s ‘flames of incandescent terror,’ if you will) as for the refreshment of the comforting dove?”5 In response to Coakley’s question, those of us who generally, if not confessedly, believe ourselves to hold more sophisticated theological positions than our charismatic Christian brothers and sisters would probably resist their tendency to flag emotional vulnerability as indicating an absence of the Holy Spirit. Seeking creation-affirming modes of imaging divine desire, we would eschew negative portrayals of the frailties of embodiment and would instead claim identity with the Spirit that animates Christ’s trauma-ridden body.
I count myself among these sophisticates. And though I will continue to wield the term sophisticates in this essay with tongue-in-cheek purpose, I should say on a serious note that I am sincerely thankful for our well-honed hermeneutic of suspicion. It continually disabuses us of strands in Christian thought that facilitate states wherein, as Wendy Farley aptly describes it, “Humility is conflated with humiliation; natural and healing impulses are rejected as sinful desire; ‘patient’ acceptance of cruelty or deadening self-sacrifice are confused with love.”6 Our resistance to these death-dealing movements is eternally important. We must never take for granted the gifts of our hermeneutic of suspicion or our determined championing of bodily experience as a viable theological resource—especially those of us who, like myself, have found our theological voices largely because of the work of those who have resisted the enslavement of teachings that would distort humiliation as humility, label natural impulses as sinful, and confuse the acceptance of oppression with the kenotic movement of love.
However, for all of our fruitful attention to the value of embodiment and its affective states, I cannot help thinking that we sophisticates are no better suited to centralizing affective desolation in our theological discernment than our charismatic counterparts. I write only out of personal experience and observation, but my hunch is that Coakley’s words challenge us in the same way that they challenge charismatics: do we take “the Spirit only to be a ‘triumphalist’ Spirit, bearer of joy and positive ‘feeling’? Or, if this is Christ’s Spirit, breathed out of his scarred body,” must we not “allow as much for the fire of purgation . . . as for the refreshment of the comforting dove?” We largely tend to affirm the vision of a triumphalist Spirit, not necessarily in our words, but certainly in our deeds.
We lean toward the positive image of the Spirit in a different manner than Coakley’s charismatics, for we do not proceed from the assumption that joyfulness is obligatory or that bodily vicissitude must be overcome. But how many of us are ready to embrace the suggestion that spiritual devastation could function as a Spirit-led means for participation in the corporeal life of Christ? Few of us are eager to do so in the midst of our own deserts. Does this hesitance not speak of our own insistence, operative in our concrete attitudes, that emotive desolation is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s absence—that the Spirit ought only to be the bearer of joy?
This vision of the Spirit as triumphalist is belied by our adherence to theological anthropologies that deliver payloads of rich insight about human subjectivity as corporeal and impulsive, liminal and fluid, perpetually in flux between states of spiritual disorientation and reorientation. Thus, in academic theology we attempt to subvert modernity’s dualistic paradigms: body and soul, instinct and intellection, desire and discernment. But just as we might falsely assume ourselves to have arrived at a more spiritually advanced position than Coakley’s charismatic Anglicans—by virtue of our more refined positions on embodiment—I suspect that we too easily suppose ourselves to have taken up a postmodern approach to the divine. As it is, it seems that we are still practically invested in the opposition of desire and discernment, and a strong hint of this investment is visible in the ways that we sophisticates feel that we are poorly equipped to account for our spiritual fears from a theological vantage point. Reckoning with our pain-driven doubts by way of doctrines of the God/world distinction usually leaves those doctrines hollow in light of our distress: our overweening and unmet desires seem evidence enough to undo the legitimacy of our theological assessments, even when those assessments include vigorous accounts of human suffering.
And how else do our fears trouble the calm surface of our intellectual placidity more stubbornly than when it comes to petitionary prayer? Of course, we have the theological savoir faire to talk about prayer in this register. With the theologian Robert Jenson we may say that petitionary prayer is a true affirmation of our creatureliness. With Karl Barth, we may argue that that our petition is to be “for the life of God in Jesus Christ to be manifested in the world, since [Christ’s life] is the hallowing of God’s name, the kingdom come, God’s will be done,” as John C. McDowell explains it.7 But for all of the fecundity of such teachings, are we not still haunted by the approaching abyssal aspects of existence, those moments that defy narrativization and systematization?
When we receive a dreaded diagnosis, when we see lives wasted in smoldering heaps by the indifference of war and natural disaster, when we falter with impotence in the face of massive systems of exploitation, when we live through the numbing hell of unthinkable loss or the prison of isolation—in these moments language and logic fail us, and we instinctually know with the poet Robert Lowell that “it is so dull and gruesome how we die,” for “unlike writing, life never finishes.” We sense that “death is not remote” and recognize the “terrifying innocence” of the fact that “a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic, / his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire, / his baby crying all night like a new machine.” When we are faced with the dull, gruesome realities of loss and nonbeing, don’t we still whisper the prayers of lost children, wounded soldiers, bereft mothers? Surely there is a terrifying innocence in our fumbling effort to reckon with the fact that “unlike writing, life never finishes.” And perhaps there is nothing more terrifying than the deafening silence that so often seems to greet us when we cry out to God as we try “to live with what was here.”8
In the wake of this silence and its defiance of systematic meaning making, some of us may find that we are torn by warring impulses. On one hand, we may be reluctant to let go of the possibility that our petitionary prayers are, in some capacity, heard and answered. To do so would contradict our conviction that the God to whom we pray is the transcendent Creator, the immanent ground of being, and the One who heard the prayers of enslaved Israel, the One whose angel greeted Mary, the One with whom we are invited to commune as graced participants in God’s arriving reign. On the other hand, though we can profess belief that this God answers petitioners in a providential fashion that we cannot discern, the same confession becomes exponentially more difficult in the wake of that deafening silence—particularly when we are haunted in memory and conversation by the cruel biblical promise that if we believe truly enough our requests will be granted (Mark 11:24).
I do not presume to speak for every sophisticate, but I have talked to enough friends and colleagues to know that I am not alone in these misgivings. For us, the concrete reality of petitionary prayer is something like an embarrassing relative we hope will not show up to support us at professional events: it is quaint and well-meaning but will inevitably say something awkward, revealing how unenlightened we are at our roots. We push this uncouth relative out of sight because we at least know who we are not: among those who believe that we can simply approach God on bended knee, present a petition in good faith, and wait for an assured result.
Reflection on the bankruptcy of such a belief always reminds me of an episode in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn: In an effort at spiritual guidance, Huck’s guardian Miss Watson tells him that whatever he prays for in earnest, he will receive. “But it warn’t so,” Huck says (after praying to no avail for the hooks he lacks for his fishing line). He goes on to reflect: “If a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuff box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No . . . there ain’t nothing in it.”9 We chuckle at Huck’s wry reflections on life’s everyday injustices, but we also know the cold truth in his conclusion: there is, undoubtedly, nothing in petitionary prayer as a means for avoiding hardship. Ongoing histories of suffering and cruelty and entire traditions of lament and theodicy have long ago leveled any trace of such naive assumptions.
But have we found sustainable ways of peering into the enveloping darkness of the night of the soul? I suspect that the gut-level uncertainty I feel when I render petitions before God in such moments indicates that I have not come to existential terms with the fears that steer me toward those embarrassing requests for the well-being of myself and those I love. When I seem to get no answer and the unthinkable happens it still feels to me that what I have understood as God’s Spirit has abandoned me and that my faith is unmasked as little more than a pleasant fiction.
Here I recall a question that Ludwig Wittgenstein put to one of his students: “what is the use of studying philosophy,” he wrote, “if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life . . . the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.”10 Wittgenstein’s objective is to distinguish between living and merely thinking and talking about living. He warns us that living is not particularly exciting; it is far more likely to be painful. But if the enhancement of living does not follow all of one’s consideration of it, then that consideration is useless.
I believe that we have cut off our “thinking and talking about living,” as it were, from enhancing the “downright nasty” work of coming to terms with the impulses that drive us toward self-indulgence and preservation. We carry on as if the mutual exclusion of desire versus discernment were real, privileging either mind or feeling depending on which is more suitable for our current effort at avoiding pain. Thus, we dichotomize soul and body in unsustainable ways, as I think becomes evident in our befuddlement when praying out of our basic fears of annihilation and our consequent crises of faith when those prayers seem ineffective.
If we want to join Coakley’s flagship effort in constructing new theologies amid the remains of eroded modernity, it seems that we must gain a better sense of what it means for our own desires to be taken up in the Holy Spirit’s movement in the world, both as we logically systematize it and as we instinctually intuit and experientially apprehend it. If we decide that the Spirit’s movement is undergirded by God’s “yearning for the creature’s own glorification,” then we should do so with the experiential knowledge that this glorification could come at a high price, costly down to the bedrock of our heart’s deepest and dearest longings. As evidenced by the answer to Christ’s petition in Gethsemane, the Spirit’s “transformation and liberation of the creature” toward the end of “participation in God’s eternal life of self-giving love” may take us through purging fires whose heat we cannot imagine enduring.11
It is imperative that we avoid blindly embracing the notion that God works actively through our desolation, for history shows how quickly slaveholders teach their slaves to accept hardship in the name of Jesus. We must also recognize that our fears of desolation make us long for God’s Spirit to work only through states of equanimity and jubilation. With Wendy Farley I believe that this longing is rooted in that basic aspect of our psyches constituted by a “precognitive awareness of death, indeterminacy, danger, and meaninglessness” and a sense that our “emotional, spiritual, social, and physical well-being are never assured.”12 These basic fears can become consuming terrors, distorting our healthy desire for shalom into idolatrous quests for pleasure and security and obstructing the self-transcending movement of worship. Christ’s journey to Golgotha shows us that following and worshiping this God could demand a leap into the deepest darkness, but Christ’s empty tomb shows us that this will also shatter our imaginations.
The difficulty of petitionary prayer, then, is imaginatively trusting that God is listening and does somehow answer providentially while bearing in mind that there is a deeply tragic dimension to our lives. And we can see that difficulty mapped onto the penitent body of Christ in Gethsemane. Remembering the tragedy of pain that defies understanding, we must learn to speak the promises of Luke 11:11 in light of Christ’s agonizing prayer in Mark 14:36 to “remove this cup from me” (NRSV). This prayer indicates that praying for deliverance from pain is no sin of failed faith. It also indicates that, as Barth urges, petitionary prayer is meant “to make [God’s] purposes and aims the object of our own desire.”13 We perhaps have not fully imagined Christ’s fear in uttering, “yet, not what I want, but what you want” or the pain of the one he called Abba in denying the passing of the terrible cross. Christ’s Gethsemane prayer is not about ridding himself of a desire for well-being; it is about the transformation of that desire when it is taken up in God’s remaking of the world.
We should rejoice in the fact that many twenty-first-century theologians have learned to resist the denigration of the body; we should celebrate that they have even taught us to revere the grace of embodiment and its strange gifts. But we must also press on to recognize and strengthen the interwovenness of our discernment and desires, seeking in the Christian tradition what Amy Hollywood calls “ritual, emotive, and intellectual resources for thinking about death, loss, and limitation” while authentically engaging in the multivalent pleasures and pains of our mortality.14 On these grounds, authentic engagement with our mortality will mean opening up lived possibilities for us as finite subjects while abandoning lingering Enlightenment-era fantasies of totality and unity, fantasies that are predicated on the separation of the head and the heart. We must consider more fully how the cultivation of our impulse-informed desires should take shape as we strive toward union with the Triune God’s will expressed in the movement of the Spirit’s kenotic activity in the world.
Flannery O’Connor reminds us that what many “people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”15 Embracing this acknowledgment must not function to justify, sanctify, or fetishize pain for Christians; it should function to help us acknowledge the reality of pain in our lives as believers. For Farley, it is when we forget the indelible reality of our basic fears that we are most tempted to imagine “the Holy Mystery as angry and alien” in light of our inflated egos.16 This reductive image produces bad theology and leads to the fetishizing of pain in and for itself, which is always dangerous as it drives us away from God’s death-conquering purposes as revealed in Christ. But equally dangerous is the reverse problem of fetishizing pleasure in and for itself, assuming that it carries within it the divine desire for our lives.
As T. S. Eliot describes it in part IV of the Four Quartets and as noted by Coakley, the Holy Spirit descends as a dove “With flame of incandescent terror,” leaving us in the position wherein “The only hope, or else despair / Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre— / To be redeemed from fire by fire.”17 We live in the already and the not yet of God’s arriving kingdom, where we expect that God will someday wipe away every tear and where we know God to be working tirelessly toward this reality. Meanwhile, we are consumed either by the fires of idolatrous desire or by that unnameable Love that engulfs us as we commit our agendas to the pyre of its death and resurrection movement.
If, as Gerard Manley Hopkins sees it, the Holy Spirit is like a dove brooding over the world, then I believe that we follow its flight path as phoenixes, repeatedly reduced to ashes and then rising up again in anticipation of the parousia, when all things will be made new. Perhaps our stubborn desire and persistence in petitioning God for the removal of suffering is the human body’s participation in creation’s chorus; perhaps we are groaning in expectation of that day when the “vivid flash that escapes from some not-yet-colonized region of the heart” finally becomes a spiral of light rising into union with the self-giving dance of the Triune life itself, never again to be reduced to ashes.18
1. This erosion is evidenced, for instance, by “tremors” along “the fault line that separates religious studies and Christian theology.” See Armour, “Theology in Modernity’s Wake,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74, no. 1 (2006): 7–15, particularly 9.
2. Specifically, for Kerr, Coakley inaugurates a “radical revolution” by treating the practice of prayer as “the wellspring of the theological task. See Kerr, “On Prayer” (paper presented at Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology, Sydney, Australia, July 12–13, 2010), 1.
3. Armour, “Theology in Modernity’s Wake,” 10.
4. Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), 172–74.
5. Ibid., 175–76.
6. Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2005), 56.
7. Jenson Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The Triune God (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1997), 122; and McDowell, “‘Openness to the World’: Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology of Christ as the Pray-er,” Modern Theology 25, no. 2 (2009): 273.
8. Lowell, “History,” in History (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), 24.
9. Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2003), 13.
10. Quoted in Norman Malcom, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1984), 35. Italics are Wittgenstein’s.
11. Kerr, “On Prayer,” 1.
12. Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire, 58.
13. Quoted in McDowell, “Openness to the World,” 262.
14. Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 272.
15. O’Connor, “Letter to Louise Abbot,” in Flannery O’Connor Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988), 1110.
16. Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire, 57.
17. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” in Four Quartets as quoted in A. David Moody’s Tracing T.S. Eliot’s Spirit: Essays on his Poetry and Thought (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 74.
18. See Romans 8:22; and Farley, Wounding and Healing, 59.
Lauren Smelser White is a second-year doctoral student in theological studies and a fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in the intersections of semiotics, Christian aesthetics, and doctrines of revelation, particularly in their implications for foundational theology and kenotic identity in conservative ecclesial communities.