Dancing in Gethsemane: A Letter About Hope

The call came when I was sitting in the Newark Airport, waiting to board a plane for Reykjavik. Beyond the wall of windows in front of me, the sun was setting in a dim yellow glow over the unending NYC skyline, and it looked like some sort of dystopian sci-fi future where skyscrapers had consumed the earth. I had just gotten off the phone with a brother from CC, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to cry or just throw my phone at the ground. He called me to tell me that I couldn’t just take role of a victim in the scandal, but that there was hope, and the Church needed me now.

I knew that he was right. As I watched dusk fade into the twinkling of skyscrapers and runway lights, I listened to the song Bad Blood by Bear’s Den. “Forgive me for I am not acting myself / but these bees in my breath have to come out.”

Since the McCarrick scandal burst out, I’ve had those bees in my mouth, buzzing and stinging any time I speak about it. I tried to exorcise them by speaking. I posted the anger on facebook comments and on my wall, I talked with my family at length after Sunday mass, I had conversations with some of my old youth ministry compatriots, but these have all served little in giving me peace save the short but fleeting feeling of having others who felt the same anger.

I was raised on stories of saints who always did the right thing -- a bishop who came down the chimney on the feast of St. Nicholas to put chocolates in the shoes of poor children. On Christmas Eve Midnight mass, we would sit in the front right pews and fall asleep on each other's shoulders and priests in gold and white garments would tell us stories about God’s love. The Church was the place in the world where magic was real.

St. Nick. Cuddly lover of children - also known for punching heretics in the face. 

St. Nick. Cuddly lover of children - also known for punching heretics in the face. 

When the scandal broke, it unearthed all the hundreds of moments of trauma or disillusionment where I caught glimpses backstage and saw, not magic, not God, but something sinister, pulling levers and smiling politely.

I remember walking into the lounge of the seminary with the new vocation director of Dallas. I sat across from him on the stoic, army-green dorm couch. He looked at me blankly and told me that the Dallas Vocations Committee had decided not to receive me as seminarian for the Diocese. That was all. I left stunned, wondering what I had said wrong, or who I had offended or what rule I had broken, with nothing to hold onto but a polite smile.

Years later I remember crying with a friend who had just discovered that his wife had been abused by a high-ranking and well-loved priest in St. Paul. Their letters and calls also received little response from the Diocesan office.

When I had moved back to Texas and was going about my life as a youth minister, I received a call from one of my ex-seminarian brothers, letting me know the news. Our friend in seminary, David Jarboe, had taken his own life by the front steps of his parish, and he had written in his suicide note, “Abuse in the church is real.”

I could go on. I am not personally a victim of sexual abuse in the church- that is a particularly harrowing suffering that I am grateful to have been spared of. But the brokenness in the church has touched all of us in some way, and through empathy, we've all been granted at least a small taste of that destruction. As the scandals have broken (for me and many others) it has stirred all my memories of my own tastes of the church's brokenness back up- and the resulting effect was an almost nauseous anger.

I took that anger online with me. I jumped on facebook, I shot out emails. And so there I was, opening my laptop in the Newark Airport to to make another clever but stinging and sarcastic remark about the USCCB. And then Edmundo Reyes called me.

He told me to have hope. “Anthony you are a leader. You talk about renaissance, you talk about these values of hope. But I don’t hear hope in you.”

These glasses allow me to see right through you. 

These glasses allow me to see right through you. 

I courteously thanked him for calling me, as one does.

After we boarded, I journaled until deep into the Atlantic. When I became truly honest, saw that under the anger about the scandal, there was a deep fear: a fear that no matter what I say or do, the Church is too far gone to save, and it will never be the place of refuge for me that I have craved it to be. And, below that… there was a deeper fear: that the magic of Christmas wasn’t ever real in the first place -- Jesus isn’t really in the manger, or in the bread in the golden bowl… it’s all a sham, like these polite bishops.

I fell asleep on the flight against the window of the airplane, feeling the cold and the mechanic hum of the engines vibrating through the plastic. When I lost my hope before, how did I find it again?

During the rest of our vacation in Iceland, our little company community came alive at every new sight of a waterfall or purple moss-covered meadow. We drank in the beauty and danced together like little kids in our Airbnb.

It was unfettered friendship. And this made me remember what healed me back during that season when I couldn’t muster any hope. It was dancing with a friend.

It was Holy Thursday 2013, and my life was in shambles. I was a professional youth minister with a philosophy degree who couldn’t believe in God anymore. I had just broken up with the girl I was in love with because of a debilitating anxiety disorder that had taken over my life -- I didn’t know what was real and what was my brain playing tricks on me. I hadn’t slept for more than a few hours a night in four months.

It was spring, and all the new foliage outside was still lime green. At family dinner we dipped parsley into a bowl of salt water, symbolizing the tears of the Israelites in slavery. We ate lamb with mint jelly and then went to the Maronite Rite parish that we went to when I was a boy. At the end of the mass, they created a “garden” in the church to symbolize the Mount of Olives and they had adoration and confession until 2am -- to keep vigil with Jesus.

I had no ride home, so I sat in the church with headphones in, listening to Sigur Ros, and I imagined Jesus in the garden, struggling till he bled from his pores against anxiety. He saw the end of his ministry, the end of his friendships, the rejection, the failure, even the distance from God. I heard the words that he spoke. “Father, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me, but Your will be done.” And then I heard the deafening silence. There was not even the comfort of a “No.” Just the snoring of his friends who wouldn’t even stay awake with him, and then finally the greeting of his betrayer.

As I thought of these things I felt -- for the first time since I had gotten sick -- like I was understood. He knew my rejection, God’s utter silence, the destruction of his life goals. In that moment I made a prayer to God: “I don’t know if I’ll be sick forever, or if I will ever have a life after this, but I accept the cup of suffering as you did and I choose to live the rest of my life without cursing it.”

I began to cry, because even though I didn’t know if Jesus was actually God, in that moment, it didn’t matter. I just knew that I wasn’t alone -- I was understood, in my deepest agony and isolation, when everyone around me was asleep to what I was going through, there was someone who saw and understood. I went outside into the parish garden, and I danced while I wept. It was a weird interpretive dance to Sigur Ros, with spins and jumps and probably even some head banging. I am sure anyone leaving the church who saw me thought I was crazy, but as I danced in that garden, I had the undeniable sense that Jesus danced along with me and was proud.

Orazio Borgianni  - Agony in the garden

Orazio Borgianni - Agony in the garden

From that moment, I found inspiration and catharsis in writing poetry and blogs that wrestled with my doubt and my suffering. Others who had experienced mental disorder or the loss of faith or the loss of a loved one began to share how my writing was a lighthouse of hope to them. Once had I turned inwards and faced my suffering and my fear with an open handed acceptance, the meaning of the suffering changed. It wasn’t characterized by abandonment, but by the deepest intimacy with Jesus I had ever experienced. Death itself was given a new name -- and that name was beginning.  

So I found hope in the midst of my darkness and suffering through dancing in it with a friend -- firstly Jesus, and then, as I opened up about my suffering, to others who shared my struggles. I share this now because I feel that those of us in CC have a vital role to play in leading through this epoc in the church, and if we don’t have hope, we will be the blind leading the blind.

We all are all angry, but there is a difference between the anger that results from hope, and the anger that results from fear and pain. The first is creative, the second is defensive and reactive. Fear-anger lends itself to polarization, to rash action, to temporary solutions. Fear sees enemies around every corner, and it will be too guarded to see vital opportunities for collaboration.

If I am going to be able to lead well in this moment, I need hope. And to get it, I have to first honestly grapple with my own fear, my doubt and my pain, and let this bring me to the side of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane once again. I feel like the Church betrayed me with a kiss. I feel like God has gone silent. And in all of this I am known. When I allow my suffering to ferment by exposing it to Christ’s bleeding, my pain can turn from vinegar to wine.

I want to encourage us to personally grieve over the Church, to grieve over the disillusionment and lost love that is present there, and then allow that disillusionment to bring us into deeper intimacy with Jesus and with each other. And once we have allowed our suffering to lead us into intimacy, this will lead to a rebellion of creative acts: dancing, writing, singing, dreaming, acts of contrition and compassion towards each other. Hope leads to creativity -- where you find one you will find the other, and I believe that it will be these acts of honest hope that will lead the church into the promised land- a New Garden, where Christ isn’t just in Christmas mass, but is also in the sacristies and in rectories and staff meetings, moving in such power that the sight of a man dancing outside of the church on Holy Thursday won’t really seem that crazy anymore. (One can only hope.)

"The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men's activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity."                    CCC - 1818


Dum Spiro Spero,
Anthony D’Ambrosio

(because... it seems like everyone's writing letters these days, and I had some thoughts.)


Title Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash