HIV Diagnosis: A Gethsemane Experience

10th April 2019

Vincent Manning is a member of the Community of the Passion and the Chair of CAPS (Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support) Here he describes some of the ways in which he believes the experience of HIV diagnosis parallels the Passion of Christ.

Let us consider the experience of an HIV diagnosis through the lens of ‘Passionist spirituality’.  The Passion of Christ refers to the extreme suffering Jesus endured in the last hours of his life. It begins in a Garden called Gethsemane and ends at a place of exclusion and shame called Golgotha, where he was Crucified and died. Passionist spirituality recognises that the Passion of Christ is not just this historical event, recorded in Scripture, but continues in the world today through the bodies of women and men at sites of suffering. I will consider how an HIV diagnosis can be thought of as a kind of ‘Gethsemane experience’. I will point to 3 similarities between being diagnosed with HIV today, and the experience of Jesus and the disciples at Gethsemane.

A Shocking Diagnosis

The first point is that HIV diagnosis remains a life changing event, which is always shocking. In his book ‘Love Undetectable’ Andrew Sullivan sums up this contrast time before and after HIV diagnosis: “I walked into my doctor’s office and my life was changed for good. The news of my HIV infection was the last thing I expected, and the first thing I feared.” In CAPS ‘Positive Faith’ films, Cate talks about how her diagnosis hit her like a ‘ton of bricks’; and from interviews that I have conducted, Paul recalls it was “..like a bomb that hit the ground and didn’t go off straight away” but “altered everything.” Even when a person might anticipate that the HIV test result will come back positive, it is always a life-shock.

An HIV diagnosis interrupts life and incurs losses of health, probably relationships, and hopes for the future. Whatever narratives of past, present and future that made sense of a person’s life, are thrown into turmoil. I know of no-one who has not experienced a state of intense emotional distress following diagnosis. Suddenly they find themselves in this place of fearful confusion, forced to confront a new hard reality that cannot be denied. A reality so feared, it was too difficult to imagine:  Literally inconceivable until unavoidably real. 

This mirrors the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane. Jesus had predicted his Passion and death, nevertheless the realisation of the suffering to come hit him too, like a ton of bricks. In his humanity he wrestled with the full implications of it all. Luke tells us that his agony was such that the sweat dripped from him like drops of blood to the ground. Henri Nouwen says that in those moments “Jesus couldn’t face it. Too much pain to hold, too much suffering to embrace, too much agony to live through.” Jesus was surely feeling overwhelmed. Nowhere else in the Gospels do we see Him described in such a state of absolute distress. His fraught prayer to God his father that ‘the hour might pass and this cup be taken away’ reflects the desperation felt when the phrase ‘HIV positive’ can no longer be avoided.

HIV as Affliction

Secondly, there is a difference between pain and the life-changing suffering that Simone Weil has called ‘Affliction’. To qualify as affliction, three aspects of suffering powerfully combine: The physical with the psychological-spiritual and the social. Physical pain alone “leaves no trace in the soul” says Weil. The experience of HIV qualifies as affliction, as these dimensions of suffering are combined, and because “affliction compels us to recognise as real what we do not think possible” she writes. Affliction takes a person beyond lesser suffering and can never be forgotten. Affliction is what Christ endured in his Passion experience from Gethsemane to crucifixion.   

The initial suffering of HIV diagnosis changes a person in aspects of identity, relationality and meaning and is never forgotten in the way that temporary pain is. It stays with the person, literally re-membered in the mind and body. It is re-membered in social contexts for the rest of the person’s life, not least because the virus in the body never goes away. The complexity of disclosure ensures that HIV is always re-membered and present, whether spoken or in silence, in the wider social contexts to which the person belongs. The potential for and re-membered consequences of painful experience remain actually present whenever a person living with HIV is with others, be that in bed with a lover, in a bar full of strangers, at the family table, the workplace, or the church. HIV is re-membered in the person, never not-known by them, even when hidden from others. It is ever present. And, so, the suffering of Gethsemane is always potentially re-membered too, the distress and pain of it easily triggered and relived.

Crucifixion as a Shaming Experience

Finally, the Gethsemane experience for Jesus’ friends was also shocking and bewildering. Jesus had warned his disciples that ‘they will all be scandalised’. He had told them that he would face crucifixion, but they had not believed him.

It takes some leap of modern imagination to bring back to mind just how shaming crucifixion was. The cross or crucifix hangs in churches and other public settings. Rowan Williams suggests that it might be better appreciated as a sign of humiliation, disgrace and suffering if instead of a cross an electric chair or a guillotine was the image that greeted those who entered a church. The cross has become a familiar symbol of religiosity and respectability, so that one might forget how shocking and disgusting the symbol of crucifixion once was. As Fleming Rutledge has put it “…we can scarcely imagine it as an object of shame and scandal unless it is burned on someone’s lawn.”

In Roman and Jewish society the very idea of crucifixion was utterly obscene, usually reserved for slaves and the most serious and despised of all criminals. It was the most shameful death a person could suffer. Beyond the agony of hanging for hours or days, or the physical pain of nails driven through the body, shame was what it most terrifyingly conveyed. Crucifixion was not just a painful bodily death it was the final act in a shameful life. The crucified person’s suffering was intensified by this absolute humiliation and indignity even in death. More than death alone, it was the prospect of such public shame that struck terror into any who witnessed it.

Today, the generally accepted Public Health Message is that HIV is a ‘manageable illness’, and no longer the terrible disease that it once was. Whilst this is intended to reduce our fears and normalise HIV testing, I would argue that in regard to individual experience it tends to dismiss the feelings of the person living with HIV and minimise the physical, psychological, social and spiritual challenges that they may face.  

I would argue that the stigma attached to HIV mirrors the stigma of the Cross. The plus sign of ‘HIV+’ on medical notes next to the name of any person diagnosed is written as a cross. For each of them, this HIV-cross impacts with overwhelming force in their Gethsemane of diagnosis, and it too signifies shame. As the scandal of the Cross of Jesus was for the disciples, this cross of HIV diagnosis is both unwelcome and unexpected. Anyone living with HIV will be forever more associated with this cross, and at the time of diagnosis they too are scandalised under the curse of it.

At Gethsemane the dawning realisation of the scandal of the Cross caused the disciples to run away and abandon Jesus. For the person who is diagnosed today, there is no running away from the cross and scandal of HIV. The question is how might they be helped to carry this cross? Will they also be abandoned as Jesus was? Or might we accompany them, as though they are Christ himself who comes to us and asks us to stay awake?

To find out more about the work of CAPS see their website.