I wonder if Jesus was really afraid, and if he really suffered. I know that there’s some danger in saying this, because we take such comfort from his suffering. It explains and dignifies our own. But I’m led to this question by my beloved Teresa of Avila, who wrote
After the rapture has passed, the will remains so deeply absorbed and the mind so transported that for days the mind is incapable of understanding anything that does not awaken the will to love. And the will is so wide awake to love that it is fast asleep to all attachments to any creature…The soul would gladly have a thousand lives to be able to give them all to God. She wishes that everything on earth could be a tongue to help her praise him. She has this strong urge to sacrifice herself for him, but the power of her love makes the soul feel that what she has to offer is insignificant. She realizes that the martyrs didn’t accomplish much in enduring the torments they endured because with the help of our Beloved such suffering is easy.
If this is true of the martyrs, and I truly hope it is, then how much more must it have been true of Christ, the perfect human soul?
When we talk about Christ’s suffering as he is beaten and mocked, I think that we need to acknowledge that this is not the kind of suffering that we know. If we agree with Teresa that the suffering of such torments is easy for a soul that’s aligned with God, then Jesus’ suffering must be something different than physical pain or psychic fear. And yet we assert that he suffered. Teresa helps me see that he suffered on behalf of, not because of. It was not the scourge, the crown of nails, the spit and the insults that made him suffer. It was because he saw that his tormentors were in a kind of agony, the cruel agony of separating ourselves from God. Their cruelty could only arise from fear and deep self-hatred. They could not see themselves as beautiful and beloved, and so they couldn’t see others as beautiful and beloved either. Christ was egoless, but within his tormentors the ego continued to make its fierce and arrogant demands.
When Manet painted Christ being mocked by the soldiers in 1865, he gave Christ eyes that look upward, away from the soldier who is showing him the switch with which he will beat him. Christ is focusing on God, of course, but to me it always looks as if he’s also rolling his eyes. Is this the best that the ego can do? Try to threaten us with the pain that it feels, the shame that it dreads. Doesn’t it know that our our souls have the capacity to move past such pain and shame? For the transcended soul, the Christ-like soul, even the switch that the soldier holds could, in Teresa’s words, be a tongue to praise God.
I write this knowing that I myself am bad at suffering. I’m always affronted and outraged by it. It awakens my dormant ego, as if I had been sleeping and had cold water thrown on me. The ego wakes up shouting. It is true that this diminishes as I grow closer to God. Yet, although my soul has not transcended my ego, it is good to have the example of Teresa, of the martyrs, of Christ, to show me what it would look like if this ever came to pass. I can’t force it through my own actions, but I can hope for it, and be open to the grace that would render suffering irrelevant.