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The Melancholy of Gethsemane: Honest Reflections on Priestly Ministry

By Mark Clavier

This wasn’t how you imagined it is it? When you sat up late into the night (probably over a bottle of gin or whiskey) with your fellow ordinands, dreaming about your future ministries, you didn’t for a second think it would be like this.

Perhaps you’re newly ordained, facing for the first time the jaded cynicism of veteran clergy and feeling your first flush of idealism wither under the chill wind of their ministerial malaise.

Perhaps you’re nearing retirement, hardly able to summon the energy to chair another vestry meeting, attend another dreary diocesan conference, or even speak words of comfort about what you now know to be entirely ordinary, everyday problems. When did you really give up? You can’t remember now; it has been so long since you did much more than go through the motions.

Perhaps you’re a once-idealistic conservative, who thought (in your youthful humility) that God would use you and your devotion (and even your impressive grasp of Athanasius, Aquinas or Barth) to save the Church from the world and from itself. You now know (even if you can’t quite admit it) that you can’t even convince your congregation … not really … except for a few overeager supporters who embarrass you at parties.

No? Then maybe you’re a fiery progressive who was once convinced that you were part of a wave that would fundamentally change the Church, ridding it finally of racism, elitism, and sexism. Now, you feel old. The changes haven’t come as quickly or as easily as you’d hoped. The grand new Church may yet be achieved but you won’t live to see it. And, oh, how the Church seems always catching up, always finding some new way to appall you, always choosing the wrong people to lead, the wrong words to say. And, oh, how exhausting the fights have been. Must it be such a struggle?

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,

    and why are you disquieted within me?”

This is the melancholy of Gethsemane: the realization that the road ahead to God lies through moments of despondency, “accompanied” by people too tired themselves even to stay awake while you cry out in frustration. The tears may flow but what of them? And so, you keep going not out of some sense of holy purpose but because there’s no other choice.

Gethsemane is for the solitary. You know the frustration, even the despair of ministry, and you bear it alone. “Oh God, not another funeral!” How can you voice that aloud? “Can she really be complaining about her anxiety again?” No, can’t say that. “How friggin’ hard can it be to pray?!” Well, you haven’t really figured it out yourself. Does it show? “Will they never shut up about lace and tasteful chasubles?” I mean, how many times can a person talk about cottas versus surplices?

But you don’t say a word. Smile, nod, join in the banter, take the funeral like the deceased was the most important person in the world, help the woman yet again with her anxiety, speak once more about praying (not that you’re very attentive to your own). You conceal the melancholy behind the pastoral mask of sympathy and concern.

Your reward? Choosing hymns again from a list you’ve now sung more times than you can count; examining another financial spreadsheet; preparing yet another sermon that will be soon forgotten; getting your head around yet another set of diocesan regulations; listening to your bishop try again to sound sagacious. Does he really think he’s Rowan Williams (not that I really understand as much of his writings as I claim)?

At least Jesus was left alone in the melancholy of Gethsemane. You? Total ministry … collaborative ministry … collaborative leadership … servant leadership … discipleship … the [censored] Jesus Movement! … the chorus of a ministry, charting the years of your service as they’re first suggested, then inspire the leadership, breed new training and initiatives, fall on deaf ears or are proven impractical, then are discarded like unfashionable clothing. Meanwhile, there’s another sermon to prepare and Linda and Frank want to complain about the flower arrangements last Sunday.

And then there are the prognostications: less money, fewer clergy, smaller congregations, church closures. Ecclesiastical doom and gloom in a world that really couldn’t care less. What are these but reminders that for decades clergy have failed to realize their ideals? The melancholy has been settling in for a long time, like wet rot in once green wood.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,

    and why are you disquieted within me?”

This isn’t how it was supposed to be. This is hard. This is soul destroying. This is not the melancholy of Gethsemane but the road to Golgotha. Yet, you know no other road. And so, you walk, walk as you always have walked, no longer really believing there’s another way or that the road might go on from Golgotha to that happier garden in which the Rabbi’s melancholy once turned into the glad hailing of a festival day.

Instead, the melancholy of Gethsemane takes hold in the sleep-stealing hours of the night, in the long silence of prayers in your empty church, in the failure again to be that comforting presence, to offer those words of wisdom or solace, to stand above the petty squabbles in your church or the Church. “Please, Lord, take this cup from me,” you cry in your darker moments. And God responds as God always does: with silence.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,

    and why are you disquieted within me?”

At times the only comfort, the only certainty, of the solitary walker is the walk itself. You may be lost. You may have little hope of reaching your destination. And yet you walk.

You listen to the despondent. You comfort the grieving. You wrestle with that text again, searching for that Voice that you’ve somehow failed to hear or convey in every other sermon you’ve preached on it. You endure the meetings, smile through the hurtful complaints, grit your teeth in the face of an imperfect Church, listen hard through the echoing silence of your prayers. Above all else, you go once again “unto the altar of God, even the God of your joy and gladness” … maybe (if you’re being honest) without the joy and gladness but perhaps with a glimmer of hope of that joy and gladness.

And so, you walk from Gethsemane, bearing your melancholic heart, keenly aware of the cross before you, and in the midst of it all knowing that you are in fact a priest. You are a priest. In that melancholy, you know somehow that this, this, is what the sacrifice of the priesthood really is. And as you walk that desolate road, perhaps you also become dimly aware, perhaps only occasionally aware, that you’re not the first to have walked it. It is the road of many a solitary priest, the road of many a person who has held the Divine Presence in his or her hands, has physically offered Love for the nourishment of aching souls.

And if God’s grace is with you, then perhaps also you discern that none of you is or has ever been alone. Christ is there with you … is you walking that road, bearing that melancholy, gazing at that cross. In the midst of it all, in the highs and the lows, in the despair, the frustration, and, yes, even the joy of your ministry, he is there working with you, in you, through you, despite you. He is there sending out his light and his truth to bring you through it all to his holy hill and to his dwelling.

And yet the road remains the same. The melancholy doesn’t fade, isn’t dispelled like some evil curse in a fairy tale. Christ offers to do that no more than Father offered to take the cup from him in the melancholy of Gethsemane. And yet, perhaps there is something about his faithful company, in the presence of his Love in and through your own half-hearted, too-despondent service, that brings an unexpected flicker of a smile to your face as you suddenly remember that it was never your priesthood in the first place. Then, resuming your journey, you’ll laugh at your own self-importance, and ask:

“Why are you cast down, O my soul,

    and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

    my help and my God.”

The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon, or priest in residence, of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.


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