Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him.  On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.”  He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed,  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”  An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.  And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
There is a photograph that sits upon a table in my parents’ bedroom that comes as close to saying a thousand words as perhaps any picture I’ve ever seen: It is an image of my mother, holding me as a baby, her forehead resting gently against mine, a look of innocent wonder upon my face, a look of tender serenity upon hers. It is without a doubt my favorite of all the snapshots that have captured random moments throughout my twenty-nine years, a timeless memento of the unconditional love that I enjoyed growing up, and continue to receive to this day.
I’m reminded of that photograph each time I hear that friends of mine have been blessed with the birth of a child. It’s been happening with increasing frequency lately; most recently, two close friends from college, Mike and Meagan, welcomed a baby girl, Avery Devine, into their lives. As is so often the case, they shared images of their daughter’s first few days, including several of each of them holding her in their arms. The joy in their eyes and in their smiles is as palpable in those images as the peace and calm found in little Avery’s resting face. It is the very portrait of love, every bit as much as the photo of my mother and me: One finding solace in the comforting arms of another.
In recent years (perhaps due to the impending onset of my thirtieth birthday), I’ve found myself becoming more reflective, paying closer attention both to where my life is currently and to where I want it to go moving forward. I have so much to be thankful for, so much that has brought me far more joy than I had any right to expect: a healthy, supportive family, a loyal group of friends, a wonderful education, a fulfilling job, and, at long last, my first apartment. And yet, even with so much, there are many moments when I feel that there is a gaping maw in my life, an emptiness that keeps true happiness just slightly out of reach.
I finally found the perfect expression of those emotions last year. As my 29th birthday approached in September, my mother, in her role as official family procurer of gifts, asked me what I would like as a present. Much to her surprise, I’m sure, I requested a poster-sized version of a painting by an artist named Carl Bloch, entitled Gethsemane.
This image entered my life a little over a year ago, during the Christmas season of 2009. At the time, I was in the midst of a social network serial, posting a countdown of my favorite Christmas songs from December 1st through December 25th on my Facebook page. Having already decided well in advance that “O Holy Night” would claim the top spot, I set out to find the perfect version. Pavarotti made a valiant effort. Fellow Italian tenor Mario Lanza was a finalist. But the most beautiful interpretation I found, perhaps the most moving piece of music I have ever heard, was a masterful performance by Swedish tenor Johan Jonatan “Jussi” Björling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvMQlMgjoPY. Someone had posted his rendition on YouTube, accompanied by a slideshow featuring various paintings of Christ; among the images included was Bloch’s painting. It moved me immediately upon seeing it, and I made it my goal to find it and obtain it in portrait form.
And then life grew hectic, and I switched jobs, and moved out of my parents’ house, and soon forgot about Gethsemane. That is, until that moment when my mom asked for my birthday wish list, and it was the first thing that entered my mind. That painting now hangs in the hallway of my apartment, the first image you see upon entering my new home.
I’ve thought long and hard about why this painting moved me, about why I felt that this image should take up so prominent a place in my residence, should represent me in such a dramatic way. What is it that speaks to me, that stirs my heart? I’ve realized that my adoration for that image draws from the same place in my soul that will always cherish that photo of my mother resting her head against mine. I’ve realized that it provided a vivid expression of what I’ve been searching for and longing for: Love, unconditional and unrelentingly compassionate.
We are so accustomed to the traditional images of Christ: the babe of the Nativity, the assured teacher surrounded by his disciples, the inexorable redeemer suffering unspeakable brutality, the glorious embodiment of triumph. And yet, it is this incarnation that pulls at my heart the most: the image of He that would be called Lord vulnerable and finding comfort on the shoulder of another.
All of the success that I have achieved, in school, in my career, in any aspect of my life, has brought with it the specter of great responsibility, much of it self-induced: I feel the constant need to use my abilities to their highest capacity, to lead, to push myself to the limit and then strain to go that much further. Such an attitude has brought me high marks in school and a nice salary, but with them, a constant need to always be perfect and a sense of disgust with myself at even the slightest mistake or instance of failure. As I move through adulthood and find myself on my own, separated from the constant nurturing of my parents, there are moments when I feel the proverbial weight of the world on my shoulders, when I feel the pressure of my own immense expectations. It is in those moments that I want so badly to have someone to turn to, someone who will love me even in my moments of weakness, and will unflinchingly offer a loving shoulder upon which I can rest my head. I have not found such affection yet, and I know that therein lies the missing piece to my puzzle.
As I write this, I wonder how those of you reading these words will react. I suspect that those of you currently searching for that special someone may relate to some extent. Others may find these ruminations depressing. Rest assured, they are not meant to be. I am fully confident that my future wife is out there somewhere, oblivious to the life of conservative rants and Mets melodrama that awaits her. The very act of expressing these emotions is a step towards breaking down the final stumbling blocks of insecurity and doubt that have held me back, and I move forward more self-assured than I’ve been in a very long time. In short, I’ve realized that the reward is far too great to allow temerity or fear of imperfection to stand in the way. The reward is love, the very essence of life, the circle around which we all revolve. It is the steady stream that carries us through each stage of our existence: The love we receive as infants, in the form of the smiles we gaze upon as we are held in our parents’ arms, or the gentle touch of our mother’s forehead against ours, becomes the template for the love we give to, and receive from, our husbands and wives, our boyfriends and girlfriends, as adults, before it is passed on to the next generation. We find solace in another, we find a shoulder to lean on in times of doubt, we pass that tenderness on to those who need it. And so the cycle repeats. I look forward to all of the joys that it has in store.
May God bless Mike, Meagan and Avery, Tim, Alex and Stephen, Tom, Jessica and Madeline, and all of my other friends who have recently experienced the happiness of welcoming a child into their lives.