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Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Mystery of the Incarnation

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)
Agony in the Garden
Tempera on wood, c.1459
31 7/8 x 50 inches (81 x 127 cm)
National Gallery, London


Sandro Botticelli 1445-1510
Agony in the Garden
c. 1500
Tempera on panel, 53 x 35 cm
Capilla Real, Granada


Jan Gossaert. (Mabuse) (ca.1478-1532)
The Agony in the Garden. c. 1510.
Oil on oak, 85 x 63 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Albrecht Dürer 1471-1528
Agony in the Garden
1515
Etching, 221 x 156 mm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco ) (1541,-1614)
The Agony in the Garden
c. 1608
Oil on canvas, 170 x 112,5 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his biography of St Teresa of Avila emphasised that all Teresa's major writings concentrate on the Incarnation.

In the final chapter of his book, he argued that Christian mysticism is itself deeply misunderstood unless it is seen within the framework of the Incarnation:

"One of the bits of advice that St Teresa of Avila gave to her nuns a few hundred years ago was that it might help you to have a picture of Jesus in your pocket – to remind yourself that what you're trying to open yourself up to in this process is the personal life of Jesus Christ, and therefore a picture or a small Cross (again something to anchor you, something to pull on) can be extremely important. You're not seeking to be absorbed, to merge into something. You're trying to let a real personal life of love – the love of Christ – come alive in you.

And so we can never dispense with that personal side.

Now St Teresa of Avila was writing about that because she wrote in an environment where some people said you've got to get beyond the prayers and the images, into the darkness of God.

To which St Teresa replied, 'well yes, that's fine, you're right, but the only way you do that is in the company of Jesus'.

You have to hold on to that because in prayer you don't just disappear into God, but you come in and with Jesus, so as to share his personal relationship with God the Father."


St Teresa of Avila, in Chapter IX of her Life, describes how she used to meditate early on in her life:

"My method of prayer was this ... As I could not reason with my mind, I would try to make pictures of Christ inwardly; and I used to think I felt better when I dwelt on those parts of His life when He was most alone. It seemed to me that His being alone and afflicted, like a person in need, made it possible for me to approach Him. I had many simple thoughts of this kind. I was particularly attached to the prayer in the Garden, where I would go to keep Him company.

I would think of the sweat and the affliction He endured there. I wished I could have wiped the sweat from His face, but I remembered that I never dared to resolve to do so, for the gravity of my sins stood in the way. I used to remain with Him there for as long as my thoughts permitted it."

This incident upon which St Teresa liked to meditate is the first sorrowful mystery of the Rosary.


Thérèse of Lisieux lived her agony in communion with the agony of Jesus, "experiencing" in herself the very paradox of Jesus's own bliss and anguish:

"In the Garden of Olives our Lord was blessed with all the joys of the Trinity, yet his dying was no less harsh. It is a mystery, but I assure you that, on the basis of what I myself am feeling, I can understand something of it". Last Conversations. Yellow Booklet (6 July 1897): OEuvres complètes (Paris, 1996), p. 1025