Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gethsemani Goodbye

Note to visitors:  1. The phrase "we-go" in this post is borrowed from George Klein's 1976 book, Psychoanalytic Theory: An Exploration In Essentials.  It refers to affiliative "we-ness" aspects of identity (leanings toward membership in social groups, selfhood characteristics derived from such membership) that have to be integrated with or balanced against autonomous "I" aspects of self.  2. Quotations from the Gospel of Mark are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.  3. Richard Shindell's song "Gethsemani Goodbye" is from his 2009 CD Not Far Now.

   Gethsemani Goodbye:
   Richard Shindell

Here is an engaging song, "Gethsemani Goodbye" by Richard Shindell:

It tells of a man driving with his partner to the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky.  The man gets lost, won't ask for directions, eventually gives up looking and turns back to Louisville.

There is implied disappointment for his companion:

     all you really wanted
     was to go see Merton's shed
     to stroll around the garden
     to pray beside his grave

And there is explicit disappointment in himself:

     but I refused to ask directions
     just kept on driving like a fool
     and when the interstate appeared
     we kissed Gethsemani goodbye

Then the last verse suggests a failure deeper than that of a stereotypic male not asking directions:

     the friend you always needed
     would've kept our morning plan
     But I drove us back to Louisville
     and kissed Gethsemani goodbye

The driver missed relational as well as road signs to Gethsemani.  The lyrics suggest that pride trumped empathy, the willful driver failing not only to stay the course, but failing to remain an interpersonally present witness to his friend's needs.  Ego trumped we-go.

He learns this too late.  The lead-off verse, repeated later, hints at a price paid for foolish pride:

     I remember everything
     how I lost the way
     how I went too far
     down the Bardstown Road

The lyrics and somber vocal timbre, the past tense and verse repetition –– all indicate that something that was has been lost, perhaps irretrievably.  Short-sighted by pride, the driver was shuttered to the landscape of his partner's needs.  He "went too far," lost his way, broke a bond.  He would have had to ditch that pride in order to be open to relational witnessing.

What does "witnessing" mean, anyway?  

Stripped of its utilitarian crime-scene and document-signing contexts, it carries the sense of being present at an event, having knowledge of something, standing up for and vouching for something.  The "wit" in "witness" relates to knowledge and knowing (cf. witty, witless, half-wit, outwit).  

(Interestingly, the word "witness" comes from the Ancient Greek martyr, and originally a martyr was merely a witness, someone who had been present at and could confirm the reality of circumstances.  Although History, with its pogroms and cleansings, has led us to link martyrdom with persecution, it was not always so.)

"Witness" is also a visual word, pointing outward: one sees what's happening in a setting, attends to something.  One typically is an eye-witness.

And there is ordinarily a pull toward witnessing, at least as regards Big Events.  Some may recall the popular TV program You Are There! (1953–1957).  Hosted by Walter Cronkite, the show recreated historical episodes, allowing viewers to become witnesses.  Less nobly, there are gossip shows and magazines, celebrity Facebook and Twitter pages, the allure of the peephole, the chance to glimpse.

But Shindell's song shows a failure to witness on a smaller scale, with a couple in a car driving to Gethsemani, Kentucky.  And this is the song's power.  Everyday life is not the Pageant of History; the couple in "Gethsemani Goodbye" are not Crossing the Delaware, they're on Bardstown Road.  The driver is with a friend, not the Secretary of State or head of the World Bank; not, that is, with someone whose star-power might otherwise compel attentive regard.  Presumably it would have taken effort for the driver to muzzle pride, open those shutters, let in knowledge of the other.

Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem
(BBC Home: Religion and Ethics)
Now a song about Gethsemani necessarily recalls another Gethsemane (with an e not an i), that garden of olive trees in Jerusalem where Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified.  This connection between Gethsemani, Kentucky and Gethsemane, Jerusalem could not have been lost on Shindell –– whose biography states the "occasionally spiritual" nature of his songs and notes his having attended Union Theological Seminary.  He seems to be anchoring a present scene in a relevant past.

Let's away to Old Jerusalem then, actually to the Gospel of Mark (c. 70 AD), the first of the four canonical gospels and the template for the others.

In Chapter 14, verses 32–34, Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray, then takes three disciples aside and asks that they stay with him and watch:

     32 And they came to a place
          which was named
          Geth-sem'-a-ne: and he saith
          to his disciples, Sit ye here,
          while I pray.
     33 And he taketh with him Peter  
          and James and John, and began
          to be sore amazed, and to be
          very heavy;
     34 and saith unto them, My soul is  
          exceeding sorrowful unto death:
          tarry ye here, and watch.

The next two verses show Jesus to be in torment; he doesn't want to die, asks God to "take away this cup from me":

     35 And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and
          prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.
     36 And he said, Ab'-ba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; 
          take away this cup from me: nevertheless, not what I will, but
          what thou wilt.

In the next verses, Jesus gets up to find that his disciples have fallen asleep.  He chides Peter for having been unable to stay awake, even for an hour, for letting physical exhaustion (needs of "the flesh") supplant spiritual readiness.

     37 And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto 
          Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour?
     38 Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation.  The spirit truly 
          is ready, but the flesh is weak.

It is a deeply sad scene.  Standing vigil, being near, these are things friends do for one another, especially in times of distress and no more so than at times of impending death.  It is precisely what Jesus has asked of his disciples, but they fall asleep.  Not once but repeatedly:

     39 And again he went away, and prayed, and spake the same 
     40 And when he returned, he found them asleep again, (for their  
          eyes were heavy,) neither wist they what to answer him.
     41 And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on  
          now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold
          the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

"It is enough ..." –– there is an interior and lonely quality to this.  Are these words of Jesus uttered to slumbering men who can't hear them?
If so, why?  Or are they more a thought, a solitary interior monologue of painful acceptance?  In either reading, the aloneness of Jesus in the midst of others is striking.

Asked to "tarry ye here, and watch," the disciples in the Garden instead fall asleep at the wheel*, just as does Richard Shindell's driver in "Gethsemani Goodbye."  In both instances, a friend is failed and a personal covenant broken.  In both instances, an unintentional (therefore, tragic) selfishness snaps a human tie.  The disciples and driver surely mean well but are seduced by their own needs.  Not bad people, they temporarily lose their way at the very worst and consequential times.  It is human attachment, its sustainment and vulnerability, that matters in these stories.  *(While outside the scope of this post, Mary Magdalene's role as a genuinely steadfast witness is compelling; she never got lost.  Click here for information, see also the Gospel of Philip and The Nag Hammadi Library.)
Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky
(Photo credit: Br. Paul Quenon)
This emphasis on human connection is brought home by references in "Gethsemani Goodbye" to 'Merton' and to Gethsemani itself.  Merton would be Thomas Merton (1915–1968), a Catholic monk who lived for twenty-seven years at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky.  Merton was a writer, poet, social activist, advocate for interfaith dialogue; and he was eloquent in his belief that participatory service was a valuable end in itself.  It outweighed any ideology to be furthered, mission to be accomplished, truth to be celebrated through such participation.  Communal doing is what counted, not proselytizing or crowning achievement, not ego but we-go.

Here is a passage from a February 21, l966 letter Merton wrote to Jim Forest, a young peace activist during the Vietnam War era:

     And then this: do not depend on the hope of results.
     When you are doing ... an apostolic work, you may have
     to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless
     and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results
     opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea,
     you start more and more to concentrate not on the results
     but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
     And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as
     gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more
     and more for specific people.  The range tends to narrow
     down, but it gets much more real.  In the end ... it is the
     reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
     You are fed up with words, and I don't blame you.  I am
     nauseated by them sometimes.  I am also, to tell the truth,
     nauseated with ideals and with causes.  This sounds like
     heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean.  It is
     so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths
     that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no
     trace of meaning left in it.  And then the temptation is to
     yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there
     again by magic.

     [ ... ]

     As for the big results, they are not in your hands or mine,
     but they can suddenly happen, and we can share in them:
     but there is no point in building our lives on this personal
     satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all
     is not that important.

     [ ... ]

     The great thing after all, is to live, not to pour out your life
     in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into
     myths.  If you can get free from the domination of causes
     and just serve Christ's truth, you will be able to do more
     and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments.
     (The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton 
     on Religious Experience and Social Concerns [pp. 294-297],
     William H. Shannon [Ed.], Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985.)

Thomas Merton
I read in this a humility –– an awareness that social good, if it happens, likely happens outside of our control; that the "reality of personal relationships" matters more than outcomes and achievements, and that serving "Christ's truth" involves getting past ego-claims so as to place ourselves in the minds of others; finally, that we lose sight of this "truth" when "engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths."

In the Christian story, this has to do with sacrifice and being a good shepherd.  We resist certain temptations, the ones that seem so natural, the satisfactions of bodily imperatives and those of ego (being right, strong, competent, self-sufficient) –– not all the time, but when a kind of ego-martyrdom will further friendship.

Although this message from Merton is personal advice given in 1966 to Jim Forest, its themes match those in Shindell's song.  Sometimes it is better not to scratch an itch, the better to bear witness to another's nature.

And so it was to the grave of this man, Thomas Merton, that the companion in "Goodbye Gethsemani" wished to go.  It says a lot for the companion, and it wasn't asking much.  But as Shindell poignantly writes:

     the friend you always needed
     would've kept our morning plan
     But I drove us back to Louisville
     and kissed Gethsemani goodbye

Finally, the idiom here of kissing Gethsemani goodbye evokes Mark's verses dealing with Jesus's betrayal, which was with a kiss:

     42 Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.
     43 And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of
          the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and
          staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.
     44 And he that betrayed him had given them a token, saying, 
          Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he; take him, and lead 
          him away safely.
     45 And as soon as he was come, he goeth straightway to him,
          and saith, Master, Master; and kissed him.      
     46 And they laid their hands on him, and took him.

In everyday speech, to kiss something goodbye is to consider it lost, to not expect to see it again.  When Shindell's headstrong driver kisses Gethsemani goodbye, he loses whatever Gethsemani and Thomas Merton represent: an experience of humility, a personally significant relationship, a sense of fellowship in service to others.  When Judas kissed Jesus, he kissed those same things goodbye.

"Gethsemane Goodbye" is a compact, resonant, poignant song.   Seemingly simple, it works as a parable in which a mundane story bears an old and continually retold truth: we need to get outside our heads and into the swim of persons.


MCKY said...

and it a nice tune you can dance to... ;-)

Kit said...

Hadn't thought of that, Matthew. Yes it is, in a shuffling sort of way.

Anonymous said...

AAAAARGUH! IT happened again. I'm going to post as Anonymous and see if it goes. I was pondering if the friendship endured after the event. We need a final verse...Anne

Kit said...

Hi Anne. Of course the friendship endures. Don't know what's going on with the Comments function thing; your last comment worked fine.

Anne said...


J-P Voilleque said...

Fantastic as always, Uncle Kit.

Kit said...

Thank you, J-P. That's a very nice compliment.

Penny said...

I get the distinct feeling that you are doing a lot of the thinking for the rest of us, Kit... Well done! It's especially welcome during this busy season, when even a list doesn't help us remember everything we need to do... Thanks for reminding us of one of the reasons "tis the season"!


Kit said...

Thanks Penny. As always, you're a good cousinly pal.

Comments are appreciated: