"Sweetest Jesus! What is there that Thou couldst have done for us which Thou hast not done!"
There is a picture that hangs over my parents’ piano of the Agony in the Garden. It hung over the piano when we lived in Michigan, and it has hung there since we moved to Pennsylvania when I was a teenager.
I’m not sure exactly how long we’ve had it—I remember when we didn’t, but not when we got it, or from where—but I remember my mom explaining it to me: how, a little in the background, you could see the disciples asleep in the shadows; and further back, in the woods, you can see the red of the soldiers coming for him, not immediately visible but definitely there. In the foreground Jesus kneels, sweat of blood on his face, and an angel holds a cup before him.
One day I was sitting on the couch in the living room, spending a lot of time in my head—something I’ve always done and still do. I have a very vivid imagination, which can serve me well, but can equally ensnare me in places I shouldn’t be. On this day, I was spinning a love story. It was purely fictional—whatever it was involved adventure and a love interest that looked like Cary Elwes, so it wasn’t a daydream in the sense that I wanted it to happen to me. Its excuse for existence was that I was going to capture it in a book. But there was no denying it: I was the heroine, and I was taking pleasure in constructing an imagined world and storyline for myself, indulging in all of my misguided ideas about romance at that age. It was my fantasy. (Hence Cary Elwes/Westley. Ahem.)
It was a very tween thing to do. (Or at least, it was typical of my tween years.) I guess there was nothing directly harmful in it, but neither was it the most healthy thing. Either way, the last direction my thoughts were pointed in was towards God.
And as I sat on the couch, inside my own head, imagining, my eyes happened to fall on the picture of the Agony in the Garden.
And I heard a Voice—yes, a voice, not with my ears, but nonetheless complete with words and their inflection—say, “This is real love.”
It was an indescribable moment. I think it only lasted as long as it takes you to read that sentence, but I’m not sure, because it was both a flash and an eternity, as though the present moment had been touched by the eternal. The words came from inside, but they did not come from me. It was clearer than anything I could have thought on my own, any sentence I could have phrased in my head. It was a shock that left a stillness in its wake, an awe.
And I was also annoyed. Because it had broken my fantasy, and I could hardly go back to it now. Which was, in all likelihood, partly the point. I told God, a little playfully, that I was annoyed; but there was still a sense of depth, of peace.
A few years later I would read about “inner locutions,” and have a name for what I experienced. But I knew then that it was the voice of God. I think that this experience was what planted the first seeds for the gradual realization that I should never marry a man who didn’t love me the way Jesus loved me. (Maybe a little obvious—it’s spelled out in the Bible!—but realizing what that meant in a concrete way: selflessness expressed through gentleness, patience, presence, holding back nothing of oneself.)
And on this Good Friday, praying the prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden, I remembered this moment, and the meaning of real love.