In January, my friend Liz made an Instagram account to share the poems she’s been writing in the notes app of her phone. She sends me her poems before she posts them, and I text her my comments. “The last stanza works really well,” I’ll say, or I’ll ask her to change an adverb or explain a metaphor. Liz’s account has forty-four followers—just her close friends. She posts at irregular intervals, every couple of weeks. Recently, I’ve been feeling like I am exploding! says the poem Liz posted on February 2. Or, on January 30—To laugh with you is a reminder that life holds promise / and that bad things might hold some source of good.
Liz is a fledgling poet, and I am a fledgling editor. But it’s lovely, I think, to create something just to share with forty-four friends. Simone de Beauvoir, drawing on Marcel Proust, once called writing “the privileged space of intersubjectivity.” Writing, Beauvoir thought, allows us to “communicate with each other through that which is the most solitary in ourselves, and by which we are bound the most intimately to one another.” Our separateness, she thought, is precisely what unites us. In the act of writing, “I” becomes “we.”1
Writing, in other words, is a solitary activity, but it is meaningful because it is relational. So, too, is prayer. In April of 2020, I wrote a piece for Holy Week called “The Interior Cathedral,” examining the conception shared by St. Augustine, Teresa of Avila, and Proust of the “cathedral of the soul,” or the inner space that every person can access to draw closer to their God. “Sometimes,” I wrote three years ago, “when I stand at the door of my cathedral, I like to imagine Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, deep in the crypts of his own.”
That Lent, I prayed for twenty minutes every day. This year, I have prayed in starts and stops, as fitfully as I sleep. In February and March, I went on walks in the afternoons, taking pictures of the sunlit river that I sometimes sent to Liz. One afternoon, I found myself in front of the bright red door of St. John the Evangelist, the monastery a ten-minute walk away from my dorm room. I went inside and sat in the cool shadow of the stone wall, watching the windows glow a deep starry blue. I hadn’t been inside a church since the summer. I didn’t pray, exactly; I couldn’t, I didn’t know how. My mind felt static, like an old television screen.
I sent Liz a picture of the stained glass windows. “I wish I was in a church right now,” she texted back. “Pray for me.” I didn’t answer; I didn’t know if I could pray. The monastery door opened and closed. A young woman walked in, removed her hat, and knelt in the pew across from me. I couldn’t see her face. She bent her head in prayer. I felt less lonely. I bent my own head, and shared in Liz’s solitude.
Mass on Holy Thursday centers on the Last Supper, the washing of the feet, Jesus foretelling Judas’s betrayal. This year, I want to think about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Remain here and keep watch with me,” Jesus asked Peter, John, and James, who had accompanied him to pray in the garden. When he returned, he found them fast asleep. He withdrew and prayed three times; every time, he returned to find that his friends had fallen back asleep.
I used to think that Peter, John, and James had failed as friends. They should have remained awake. If they were stronger and braver and more compassionate, they would have remained awake. If they loved Jesus enough, if they understood exactly who he was and what this final night of prayer meant to him, they would have remained awake. But now I think I understand that if they had, they would not have been themselves—they would not have been Peter and John and James, stubborn and tired and flawed. It is enough, I think, that they were with Jesus in the garden. They may have fallen asleep, but they kept Jesus company when he felt “sorrow and distress”; they stayed beside him as he asked God to spare him from being crucified. They shared, however imperfectly, in his solitude.
When I am sorrowful and distressed, when I am lonely and doubtful, it is enough to know that I have friends who share, however imperfectly, in my solitude. Peter fell asleep and denied knowing Jesus three times, but he cried as soon as he realized what he had done. My friends and I are like Peter. When I call Liz, she can’t always answer; when she sends me her poems, I can’t always read them as carefully as she might like. Often, we say the wrong thing to one another. But we love each other enough to know that even love can be lonely. We are bound most intimately by that which is most solitary in ourselves. We read each other’s poetry; we feel for one another even when we don’t remember how to pray. We curl up and sleep at the doors of one another’s Gardens of Gethsemane.
In December of 2018, at the end of my very first semester at Harvard, I visited the real-life Garden of Gethsemane. I stood at the foot of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the ancient ramparts of the Old Jerusalem, and walked along the manicured, stone-lined paths that separate the olive trees. I looked at the mosaic inside the Basilica of the Agony and saw Jesus curled up on a rock under the twisted branches. In the mosaic, Jesus is alone. But I know now that he was not alone. His friends were there, asleep, beside him.
Aliénor Manteau ’23 is a senior in Dunster House studying English and Philosophy
|↑1||Simone de Beauvoir, “My Experience as a Writer.”|