What I learned while praying in the (empty) Garden of Gethsemane during Lent
What does it mean to know a garden? To understand its seasons, to recognize the branches where birds rest? What does it teach us when we return to the same garden time and time again, to listen and learn from the trees?
I have found myself asking these questions this year in Jerusalem, where I live. In this fraught time, I read the Gospels differently, and lines I used to overlook now emerge from the page. This month, it has been a phrase from the Gospel of Luke: “Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called.”
Such a simple line, and yet I can’t stop thinking of it. Jesus had a place that he loved, and he returned there.
The line calls me. So in this year, with the pilgrims gone and the holy places nearly empty, I set out to spend some time on the Mount of Olives to see what I can learn from the ancient trees.
On a morning in late February, I walk through the entrance to Gethsemane to find the garden empty, save for a gardener pulling weeds away from the stone paths. In front of me stand the massive, gnarled trunks of the oldest olive trees—protected by a fence—eight of which tradition says were witnesses to Jesus’ passion. Birds sing, flitting from branch to branch. The space has briefly returned to what it is: a garden. I take a seat. I try to stay awake.
Wally Hawa, a Palestinian who works there, sees me and says hello. “Usually there are 80 tour buses a day here,” he remarks. “Enjoy the quiet.”
The garden has something important to teach us about the humanity of Jesus.
Slowly, I focus, noticing that within the old trees, newer growth appears. The sun rising over the mountain begins to cast light on the leaves, making them glimmer almost silver. Wind breathes through the branches.
In my second hour, I study creases on bark. Pigeons lazily pecking at the soil. As the heart softens, I become grateful even for cars on the nearby road, reminders that the world remains hectic but that a garden grows, even in this.
In the third hour, I watch bees gathering in the purple flowers of rosemary bushes, their almost translucent wings fluttering.
I circle the garden, smiling at the olive tree that Pope Francis planted during his visit in 2014, barely visible among the surrounding giants. In his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” he reminded us that “Jesus lived in full harmony with nature,” quoting the passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “What man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
Yes, surely Jesus knew the trees on this mountain and recognized them. The trees, hidden characters in the story I have walked through many times before but never really noticed until now.
When I return to the garden the next morning, my heart leaps up at the sight of it, at the trees, still there. Otherwise, I am exhausted. The familiar birds and fading almond blossoms of February remind me that a year has passed since the pandemic began here.
A bird calls. Another. I take my place in front of the trees and wonder what a garden remembers.
In 2012, a study carried out by Italian researchers at the National Research Council of Italy Trees and Timber Institute determined that the oldest trees in the garden were at least 900 years old. This does not answer the question of whether or not these were the same trees that Jesus prayed beneath—they might have grown back from still older trees—but to me none of this seems important. The fact that such ancient trees have remained, cared for and quiet, in the heart of a city that has weathered so much conflict, comforts me. Somehow, in a world so busy and so fragile, a garden has survived.
This morning, I am thinking of the events of Holy Thursday after the Last Supper, when Jesus came to this site to pray before his betrayal. I enter the Church of All Nations beside the garden, consecrated in 1924 over the site of the stone where tradition says Jesus prayed. On the pews, black stains remain from an arson attack carried out in December, another reminder of the site’s fragility. Above the altar, a mosaic depicts Jesus collapsed, praying in agony at night. The sky seems almost to embrace him, and two olive trees, one on either side, appear to lean in.
This story also reminds us that we should stay with our friends when they need us the most.
When I return to the garden, I meet Father Jozo Sarcevic, a young Franciscan priest who has been living at Gethsemane for two years. In a period with almost no tourists, he goes into the garden nearly every afternoon now to read.
I admit to him that until now I have always pictured Jesus alone in the garden praying, with the disciples asleep. But now, I picture the trees with him. How might spending time among the trees, I ask him, change the way in which we read the story?
The garden, he says, has something important to teach us about the humanity of Jesus. “Jesus is in a common situation: to be alone in front of the most important decision of your life,” he says. “And Jesus is surrounded by trees, in the middle of nature. Nature is God’s creation. In this context, there is a connection to God—but Jesus is also a man. He is passing through a very tremendous moment.”
I can picture Jesus now, praying beneath the trees. I cannot help but think of this year we have also passed, full of so many agonies, such difficulties for so many, so much loss and so many choices. I ask Father Jozo what we might learn from Jesus asking his disciples to stay awake and pray with him.
“I don’t know for others, but I am trying to understand it for myself,” he tells me quietly. “Jesus doesn’t want to resolve our problems as problems but to guide the direction of our lives.” He suggests that Jesus’ reminder to “stay awake” can help us to listen to God’s voice, even when the world causes us to doubt our choices.
I’m reminded of the chant sung by the monks at the French monastery of Taizé, based on Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch and pray.”
This story also reminds us, Father Jozo says, that we should stay with our friends when they need us the most.
Later that evening I climb the road behind the church and ring at the door of the hermitage of Gethsemane, where I will be sleeping for the next two nights. Set among olive trees and run by the Franciscans, the hermitage welcomes those who wish to pray on the Mount of Olives in silent retreat.
Father Diego Dalla Casa, the young Italian Franciscan who runs it, opens the door wearing his gardening clothes. He is joyful, and as he leads me along the path through the olive trees to my hermitage, he points across the valley to the view of the Old City.
The trees teach me to wait. To stay. To have patience.
“We like to say that this is the place where Jesus liked to pray,” he tells me of the garden. “On Holy Thursday, he ate with the disciples and then crossed the Kidron valley to come here.”
He charts with his finger the path from the valley to the garden.
“Of course, we don’t know exactly where he came to pray,” he admits. “And many things have changed today. But many things are also the same. The stars are the same. The sky is the same.”
“The birds are the same.” I chime in.
He smiles. “Jesus is the same.”
We arrive at the small hermitage named Nazareth, and he hands me my keys, together with those to the chapel.
“You can pray in the chapel at night or down in the church during the day,” he tells me, then smiles. “But the best is to pray outside, among the trees.”
I settle into my room. A few minutes after I arrive, rain begins falling.
To the surprise of no one, least of all me, I almost immediately fall asleep.
The next morning, I awaken to bells ringing from the church below. The olive trees alive with birds. For the first time in many months, I breathe in the silence. I walk among paths to find carob trees, a mandarin tree, two types of jasmine. I pause to rub the leaves of a lemon tree between my fingers.
In the afternoon, Father Diego speaks with me about the garden. He has been here for 11 years, welcoming pilgrims on retreat, a life he never imagined when he grew up in Italy.
“The garden is very special for us,” he says. “The pilgrims who come to the Holy Land can visit many holy places. But it’s not in all places that you can pray. In all four Gospels, this is the only place in which Jesus says: ‘Stay here with me while I pray.’ For us this is special.”
For Father Diego, the garden is a place among places on the Mount of Olives dear to the heart of Jesus. Bethany would have been just two and a half kilometers up the road, a half hour’s walk, where he would stop to visit Mary, Martha and Lazarus—his friends. Here, he visited to be among the trees. These were two places where Jesus returned, one “because he loved the place, and the second because he was loved by the people in that place,” Father Diego tells me.
A place of returning. The garden, it seems, also has something to teach about fidelity.
“I’ve received so many teachings from the trees,” Father Diego says. “We don’t have to take care of them too much. They are growing and live by the care of the creator. We perhaps need to take care of a few branches or to move the dirt beneath the roots or put some fertilizer. But that’s all.” He smiles, gesturing to the trees. “The trees teach me to wait. To stay. To have patience. Because we have to wait one year for the fruit! And when it comes, it doesn’t come because of me. But I can welcome it, like a gift.”
When I leave Gethsemane the next morning, I take the garden with me. I’ll keep returning there in prayer, too, at the end of long days, when I need to rest, to remember the cyclamen blooming, the smell of rain, the ancient trees. Maybe that’s what I’ve learned; that all of us carry a garden within us, that all of us might retreat there to reconnect. The garden stays. In our trials, we, too, might find our place among the trees, to speak to God. To hear the birds. To be near friends. To say thank you. To make our choices. To wait for the fruit that comes, if only we just give it time.
More from America: