Circle of Rembrandt, “Head of Christ Facing Right,” ca. 1650
“Father, you can have my eyes. You can have anything. You can have everything!”
An incurable eye disease intruded on 16-year-old Johnny Atwell’s life almost overnight. In October 1974, the Glendive, Montana, teen faced inevitable blindness.
Every night as he went to bed he prayed—or rather, demanded: “Father, take it away, I cannot do this! Father, take it away!” After three months of this, one night, Atwell cried out to God: “Father, I can’t do this! I can’t go blind! You don’t understand, Father!”
The ridiculousness of what he had just said, sunk in. What did I just say? he thought. He’s God. He understands everything.
Atwell then began praying the “Our Father” out loud. At the words, “Thy will be done,” he was suddenly no longer in his bed. “I was in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus. His head was bowed down to the ground and he was shaking. I could see the glints of sweat and blood through his hair and I saw the moonlight.” Immediately, Atwell understood that Jesus had just said to God the Father, “Not my will but yours be done.”
“Jesus began convulsing and weeping. I was in front of him, standing. The Father showed me the Son at the time Jesus gave his will over, obedient to his Father’s will,” Atwell explained. “I felt so ashamed. Jesus had given everything, and I wasn’t willing to give my eyes.”
Suddenly, Atwell was back in his bed. “I am so sorry,” he cried. “You gave everything, and I wasn’t willing to give you my eyes. Father, you can have my eyes. You can have anything. You can have everything!”
“That’s when an electric feeling shot through me,” Atwell explained. “I felt it instantaneously, rising through me from the tips of my toes up to the top of my head. It was over in a split second. My eyes were open and in my dark bedroom, I had absolute knowledge that I had been miraculously healed.
The Mayo Clinic confirmed with examinations and X-rays that Atwell’s experience was not his imagination. Doctors were astounded. And Atwell, or rather Father Basil Atwell, a Benedictine priest in North Dakota now, had fallen deeply in love with Jesus Christ. It was his glimpse of Christ’s suffering for the love of us that ignited that love that burns to this day.
Stir Greater Love
Not everyone has such a miraculous experience, but we can all witness the depths of God’s love for us through the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Although I am a work in progress, it is clear to me through the Catholic Church, the lives of the saints, and the example of the story above, that contemplating the suffering and passion of Jesus Christ can deepen our love for him.
Below are 10 ways we can use the Passion of Jesus to stir a greater love.
- Hang a crucifix, not a cross, to look at during prayer and meditation. Catholics use a crucifix because it is the suffering and death of Jesus that saved us and reveals the depths of his love for us.
- Read the passion narratives in the New Testament: Matthew 26:30–27:66; Mark 14:32-15:47; Luke 22:39-23:56; and John 18:1-19:42.
- Watch the movie The Passion of Christ, which graphically depicts the last 12 hours before Jesus’ crucifixion.
- Read Dr. Edward Sri’s new book No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk Through Christ's Passion revealing Christ’s last 18 hours of his life. It explains the deep humiliation and hatred heaped upon Jesus and the significance of his actions and words as he accepted unimaginable suffering for love of us. Walking through Scripture in this way reveals the profound reality that the second person in the Trinity allowed his creatures to inflict intense suffering on him while he continued to love and die for them.
- Pray the Stations of the Cross. Most Catholic churches schedule this devotion during the Fridays of Lent. We can also integrate it into our lives daily, or on Fridays, or at least periodically.
- Thank Jesus daily for suffering and dying for us and ask him to increase your love for him. "How much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him" (Matthew 7:11).
- Ask the Blessed Mother, who witnessed Jesus’ passion and death and loves him more than any other person, to help you to love her son more.
- Pray the 15 prayers given to St. Bridget of Sweden which recalls Jesus assuming human nature and accepting suffering for the love of us.
- Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
- Receive Holy Communion frequently and meditate on the unimaginable gift of Jesus Body and Blood won for us through his suffering and death. There is no greater love than this and by receiving such love, we have more to return.