Our Blessed Mother

There is much to marvel at in God’s creation, but the bond between mother and child is chief among them. In marriage, the two become one flesh. In motherhood, what begins as one flesh proceeds, through a nurturing and protective process, as a new being that grows into full maturity. The process of pregnancy and birthing is a paradox of sorrow and joy – so much so that it becomes the best analogy that Jesus can find to describe the Resurrection (John 16:16-22). The process of guiding children into adulthood replays the same paradox. If strongly supported and protected, healthy mothers are able to partner with healthy fathers in guiding their children into responsible adulthood. The mother desires that this young human being, who began in her womb with absolute dependence and need, will gradually reach a point of no longer needing and depending on her, but living autonomously with a free and joyful capacity for communion and total self-gift. I am friends with many moms, and have seen in their eyes that amazing combination of painful loss and intense joy as they proudly watch their sons and daughters shine in adulthood. But they are up against so much!

O how the devil hates this beautiful gift of motherhood! In every age, he renews his assault against it, and against the precious daughters of God who are called to it. Last time, I shared the particular ways in which our modern industrialized (and now digitalized) age tends to war against women. Toxic understandings of masculinity and femininity have infected both secular society and our own churches. Wave after wave of collective trauma has caused most of our families to perpetuate cycles of harm from generation to generation – unless and until we have the courage to face it all and heal. When I say collective trauma, I am thinking of the immigration of my and your ancestors, the previous pandemic, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the most recent pandemic, and so much more. Few families have fully faced and fully healed the heartache. Most of us minimize it, pull ourselves together, and carry on – which totally made sense during the traumatic events themselves – but over time has corroded our capacity for healthy intimacy and relationships. One of many sad results is that most of us did not receive all that we truly needed from our mothers.

God sends Jesus as his own beloved Son to plunge into every betrayal, every assault, every loss, every moment of heartache – and to transform it all. We are no longer alone or powerless in our agony – he suffers with and for us.

So does our mother Mary! God chose her to be the mother of his own Son. He is true flesh of her flesh, born of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. God also chose her to be our heavenly mother, as Jesus revealed to us on the Cross: “Behold Your Mother!”

How can she possibly be a mother to each and every beloved disciple? Only if she participates fully in the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension – just as she participated fully in his Cross and burial. When Jesus is raised from the dead and exalted in heavenly glory, he opens up a new dimension of human existence. His body is one and the same as the body placed lovingly in the tomb, yet gloriously transformed beyond our current comprehension. The resurrection accounts make it clear that our current limits of time and place cannot contain him. He can be fully present many places at once – not just as God, but in his human flesh.

The Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven may seem to many to be abstract or unbiblical or irrelevant. But it makes so much sense if you look at it through the lens of Jesus giving us the heavenly mother that he knew each and all of us would need! He knows the relentless assaults of evil. He knows that many mothers and many children in every generation will be vulnerable to attack. He promises not to leave us orphans.

Sharing already in Jesus’ Ascension glory, our Blessed Mother is able to provide the tender nurturing, the fierce protection, and the motherly mentoring that we may have missed out on. We cannot give what we have not received!

My heart has been warmed at how many of my Protestant friends are curious about devotion to Mary. They and I recognize that the polemics of the past (on all sides) resulted in much misunderstanding, distortion, or loss. Our American culture, with its Puritanical roots, has been particularly suspicious of devotion to Mary – unlike most other times and places in the history of Christianity. From at least as long ago as the early art in the Roman catacombs, Mary’s motherhood has captivated the imagination and creative expression of Christian disciples in every age. She is always the mother that we need, because our good Father knows of our need and always provides.

I have a few writing projects that I’ve chipped away at in recent years. Five years ago, I wrote a book on the Beatitudes which I will eventually rework and publish. While on sabbatical, I wrote a book about devotion to Mary for those who really need it. The idea came originally from a mentor who was a Protestant minister and therapist. I wasn’t ready to write it for a long time, but it is nearing completion now. I look forward to sharing some stories of how Mary has been the heavenly mother I have needed, and hope that many of you will find her to be exactly the mother that you need.

Behold Your Mother!

As Jesus died on the Cross, he uttered his final words. In any great story, the last words of the hero are loaded with significance. The dying and rising of Jesus is the greatest story ever told.

On the Cross, Jesus speaks to his mother Mary and to his beloved disciple (John 19:25-29). He tells her, “Behold your son!” He tells him, “Behold your mother!”

Why does Jesus make a point of introducing this relationship? Why does John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make a point of recording it for all posterity to read?

Jesus is not a procrastinator who suddenly realizes he has not made arrangements for his mother. He is not worried about who will take care of her. He is inviting you and me into a relationship with his mother. He is introducing her as a mother that we all need!

Each one of us is a beloved disciple of Jesus. Each one of us is invited into the new and eternal covenant, sealed with his blood on the Cross. And each one of us needs a heavenly mother.

At the Last Supper, two chapters earlier (John 17), Jesus prays his priestly prayer to his Father. He delights in the intimate relationship he has with his Father. He prays for the disciples he has chosen. He also prays for you and me –for those who one day will believe and become his beloved disciples (John 17:20). He desires and prays that all that is his will be ours. That includes his intimate relationship with his Father. It also includes having his mother as our mother.

This weekend we celebrate another Mother’s Day. As we show honor and delight to our earthly mothers, or give thanks in their memory, we can also ponder Jesus’ invitation from the Cross. He offers us Mary as an icon of motherhood, but also as a real human being (now sharing in his glory in heaven) who is capable of being intimately present as a heavenly mother to each and all of us in the ways we most need.

As children, we all needed tender nurturing, fierce protection, and wise guidance. These needs are hardwired into us in the biological bond between mother and child.

Those needs may shift in adulthood, but they do not go away. In fact, for the last couple of centuries, it is mothers themselves who have been most deprived of those needs! The very genesis of the Mother’s Day holiday is a feeble acknowledgement that we live in a culture that devalues and degrades women while expecting the impossible of them.

Most mothers that I know feel like they are failing most of the time. They continue to struggle with their own ache for nurture, protection, and mentoring, and are somehow supposed to provide those things to each child – AND be a strong and capable worker, AND have the right body shape and allure, AND engage in prayer and self-care, AND…   You get the point. Holding a commercialized holiday in mid-May does not dispense us from the duty of conducting a thorough inspection of the toxic waters we expect mothers to swim in.

Some think it has always been so. I do not agree. Yes, throughout history, women are subject to exploitation by men seeking privilege and power. But it shows up differently in different times and places. What many consider to be “traditional” gender roles are much more modern than they realize! The burden placed upon women in the West in the modern industrial era is uniquely ugly.

If you study the Saints of the Middle Ages, you will find many tender-hearted men and many fierce women. Literacy was not widespread anywhere prior to the printing press, but there were many literate women who became strong leaders. One of the unintended side effects of the Protestant splintering was the abolition of religious life. No more alternative paths for women. Be a wife and mother.

A second major shift happened with the Industrial Revolution. The division into specialized labor led to massive migration, pulled extended families apart, and pushed men who used to work at home or close to home into factories. The nuclear family replaced extended families as the norm, and women were left alone at home – except at wartime, when they were also supposed to provide the needed labor in the workforce. In all these shifts, women were largely abandoned in their God-given task of mothering – without tribe or village supporting them. It is impossible to mother alone! That conviction seems to be what fueled Anna Marie Jarvis in the original observance of this holiday.

Both the culture and our churches tend to perpetuate false and impossible expectations on women. The “perfect family” idealized over the decades in ads or TV shows or church culture does not actually exist! Some glamorize the “good old days” of the mid-20th Century – ignoring the ugly realities of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and objectification. Meanwhile, the ideal woman is supposed to check an impossible list of boxes regarding appearance and performance, while still finding a way to nurture, protect, and guide her kids.

How can mothers give what they have not themselves received? And how do our institutions and structures back up mothers to ensure they can thrive during the critical years of mothering? For multiple generations now, motherhood has been in survival mode. That cycle means that even the best of mothering experiences will leave the children aching for more when they enter adulthood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2779) warns us that our notions of fatherhood and motherhood are often wordly, distorted, and toxic. They need to be purified by looking to how Jesus has revealed God’s Fatherhood (and Mary’s motherhood) to us. We have much to reflect on!

In the meantime, each of us needs Mary’s mothering. Each of us has an ongoing ache for the tender nurture and fierce protection that she can provide. Each of us can turn to her as the wisest of mothers.

To be continued…

Emmaus and the Eucharist

Of all the resurrection stories, perhaps my favorite is the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Two downcast disciples are wandering away from Jerusalem, away from all their hope, when Jesus walks up and joins them. He playfully pretends not to know what is going on. He wants them to acknowledge their loss so that his Holy Spirit can enter their hearts and rekindle their hope. He breaks open the Scriptures for them, helping them to make sense of the Messiah’s story and their own story. Their hearts expand in a yearning to stay connected with him. He breaks bread with them, at which point they recognize his presence. They hasten to Jerusalem and become witnesses of the resurrection.

But there is more. Luke wrote his Gospel for the sake of early Christian communities who were already gathering Sunday after Sunday to listen to the Scriptures and to “do this in memory of me” by celebrating the Eucharist (Luke 22:19). It is not merely a story about a one-time appearance of Jesus to some guy named Cleopas and some other unnamed guy. It is a story about how every Sunday Eucharist is a life-transforming encounter with the risen Jesus. That which happened to those two disciples on a Sunday is intended for each of us.

Our Sunday worship bears a twofold structure: Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist. We listen receptively to the Scriptures and ponder how they connect with our present-day life. We allow our hearts to be set ablaze as we realize how Jesus’ story gives meaning and purpose to our own story. Then we get fed with his very flesh and blood following a ritual reenactment of the once-for-all offering of Jesus. We remember those saving events in a way that allows us to participate in them here and now.

Bishop Robert Barron, in his insightful and inspiring fashion, has drawn many other connections. We begin each Mass by calling on the Lord for mercy: kyrie eleison. Like Cleopas and his friend, we are downcast. Many of the early Church fathers described the fallen human condition as incurvatus. Like the crippled woman in Luke 13, we are bowed down. We are wounded by sin – by the way others’ sins have harmed us and by our own sins. We remain God’s beloved children, inherently good. But we are bent, weighed down, and turned in on ourselves. Without divine mercy, we are like a younger Peter, fluctuating between an “I’ve got this!” grandiosity and an “I’m so horrible!” discouragement.

So, we begin the Mass by acknowledging our sins and inviting the mercy God freely offers us in Christ. We trust that his victory allows us to stand upright – not through our own merits but by his free gift.

Then we listen to the Scriptures and allow them to be broken open for us. In every Sunday Mass, there is a connection between the First Reading and the Gospel. The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites an adage from the early Church: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (n. 129). There is also a connection between the stories of Scripture and our own personal story – some of which we know with clarity and some of which is a mystery to us. Without the story of Jesus, our own story will remain fragmented and disorienting.

Those of us who are ordained ministers are commissioned by God to proclaim the Gospel with authority. That does not mean that every homily we preach will be brilliant and breathtaking. It does not even mean that we will preach the truth. It does mean that we are called to stand in as Christ, allowing him to speak in and through us. I think every priest or deacon has had the experience of what we thought to be a rather flat performance becoming the divinely chosen moment for one person’s heart to be permanently changed.

The first half of Mass centers around the ambo – the podium at which the Word is proclaimed. We then shift to the altar, which is also a banquet table. All of Scripture and all of the Mass revolve around the paschal mystery of Jesus. “Paschal” is another word for “Passover.” Jesus shows the disciples at Emmaus how the Passover events in Egypt were a prefiguration of his once-for-all Passover offering – which begins at sundown on Holy Thursday. Jesus freely offers himself as the Paschal Lamb – feeding his disciples at table, praying prostrate in the Garden of Gethsemane, suffering and dying on the Cross, proclaiming the Gospel in the realm of the dead, rising in glory, and now robed in human flesh as our great high priest, interceding for us at the right hand of the Father. He is both the priest who offers and the victim who is offered. The Mass participates in that one eternal sacrifice. But why? So that we can all join together with him at the banquet table, celebrating his nuptial union with his bride. Every Mass is a taste and glimpse of the wedding feast of heaven. The Eucharist, Christ’s own risen flesh and blood, is both our food for the journey and our medicine. It nourishes, heals, and strengthens us.

Mass ends by sending us forth. “Mass” comes from missa (“sent”). Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can go forth truly changed – having passed over from old to new, no longer downcast but erect, eager to live as witnesses of Jesus’ story that has given so much meaning to our own story. Renewed and sustained by this steady gift, we now have the capacity to live in a way that attracts others to be curious about Jesus.

Until Jesus comes again, the Eucharist is the beating heart of the Church. We fulfill Jesus’ command to “keep on doing this in memory of me.” We remember where we have come from and where we are going. We become again and gain what we one day will be.

The Tomb as a Womb

It was Easter Sunday: April 12, 2009. I stood in awe at the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. I had spent the entire night there in prayer, and was the very first pilgrim to enter that morning. It was a transformative experience that I will never forget, an experience almost too real to remember.

The church of the Holy Sepulcher houses both the location of Christ’s death on Calvary and his tomb, made forever holy by his resurrection. My friends and I joined in the Catholic liturgy at those sites for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

It was odd to celebrate those ceremonies in the morning. But Jerusalem is an odd place. Because these holy sites are shared with the Orthodox, the Armenians, and the Copts, there is an age-old “Status Quo” agreement that determines who has access when. The Catholic time is 8am, regardless of the occasion.

A few of us returned to the basilica that Holy Saturday night to observe a personal prayer vigil at the Lord’s tomb. I’m ashamed to admit that it is the one and only all-night prayer vigil of my life. For some reason, when it comes to the Lord, that level of sacrifice and generosity is elusive. Too bad, because the Lord is never outdone in generosity!

Knowing that I would be there all night, I was in no rush to “get my prayers done” or to feel like I had to be doing something at any given time. This turned it into a timeless experience. For the first few hours I simply sat back and absorbed the stream of pilgrims that were coming to the church to try to get into the tomb. Occasionally I read some Scripture passages. I began praying for the many people whom I knew needed my prayers. I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of sorrow over so many suffering souls and so many problems in the world – not to mention my own problems.

Then something happened that (for me) only happens about once every 10 years. I began to get the inklings of a poem swelling up within me. For the moment, I put it aside. After all, I thought, I am not a poet! But eventually I opened myself to the movement. The words came rather quickly. It went something like this:

O Tomb of Christ, this Easter Night
I bring to you man’s lonely plight:
toil, trial, sickness, woe,
unceasing wounds left by our foe,
anger, hatred, factions, fights,
fear-filled days and tear-filled nights,
heartache, heartbreak, darkness, death,
and growing pain with every breath –
but hope, hope-filled sadness
to you, the source of gladness.
O tomb that could not hold the Son
Who on this night the victory won,
I bury all my sadness here
and that of those I hold most dear,
that we may rise to second birth
here at the center of the earth.

I was just finishing as the Orthodox began their 2 a.m. Palm Sunday liturgy (their Easter was still a week away). Their somber and sorrowful chanting was beautifully haunting, and resonated with my heart. The time flew by. I began to write on that sheet of paper the names of any and every person I could think of who needed my prayer, as well as my personal intentions. The ink couldn’t run onto the page fast enough. I finished about the time the Orthodox were clearing out.

Ironically, my watch battery had gone dead on Good Friday, so the night was truly timeless. It must have been around 4 a.m. that I attempted to enter the tomb, like Mary Magdalene, “early in the morning, while it was still dark” (John 20:1). An Armenian priest was setting up for their liturgy, and it seemed quite unlikely I would be allowed in. I began to pray the beads of my Rosary, reflecting on the first glorious mystery – the Resurrection of Jesus – and hoping against hope. For some reason a few of the servers were late, and he waved me in.

I approached, finishing the final Hail Marys, and then entered the inner door on my knees. The moment I reached the threshold I broke down and wept as I had not for a very long time. It was such an unburdening and sense of true peace. The best word I can use is GLORY. I experienced the “Glory of the Father” by which “Christ was raised from the dead” (Rom 6:4), and this Glory filled me with Hope. Without eliminating or minimizing my own sadness or the sadness of others, this Hope permeated my soul with a deep confidence summed up in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

I prayed for a few moments before heading back out, not wanting to test the limits of Armenian hospitality. With many tears still in my eyes, I silently thanked the priest for his kindness, and returned to the side of the tomb where I had been praying the past few hours. I wedged that sheet of paper and all those intentions into the side of the tomb and continued to weep and shake for several minutes more. Then I resumed my prayer, turning to Romans 6 and feeling the words come alive in my heart. The resurrection suddenly felt so real!

As the first streaks of dawn were just appearing, I pulled out my Liturgy of the Hours book to pray Morning Prayer. My heart was filled with praise, and so I sang the prayers. How surreal it was to stand at the entrance near the church, chanting the antiphon, “Very early on the morning after the Sabbath, when the sun had just risen, they came to the tomb, Alleluia” – at the very moment that hundreds of pilgrims were streaming in to see the tomb.

I am stunned at what came out of my heart that night. Only during the last six years have I found the courage to plunge deeply into those sad and lonely places of my heart – old places of pain that I didn’t even realize existed. But they were there, and they cried out to the Lord that Easter night in the poem that came out of me. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, and heals the brokenhearted.

The tomb is indeed a womb, giving birth to the newness of the resurrection. That new birth is what my heart longs for – and resists. It seems like it should be easy to welcome the Glory of the resurrection. But the resurrection opens an infinitely vaster horizon of human existence. When a baby passes from the security and comfort of the womb into a vast new world, he needs much nurturing, protection, and guidance to grow into it. So do we. That is why we celebrate the resurrection every single Sunday, and once a year with even greater solemnity. We plunge into death with Christ and rise with him in newness. May you and I joyfully claim even more of that newness this year. A blessed Easter to you all!

Self-Denial vs. Deprivation

“It is just as much a sin to deprive the body without discernment of what it really needs as it is to indulge in gluttony.”

These were wise words of Francis of Assisi to his band of brothers in the 1220’s. This is the Francis of Assisi who embraced radical poverty, including fasting and prayer vigils that most today would consider austere. He often meditated on the sufferings of Christ, and desired to be one with Jesus on the Cross. But Francis was known above all else for his radiant joy – a heart bursting with praise and gratitude. He surrounded himself with beauty and delight, but never grasped at it. He freely gave it all back to God.

The daily invitation of Jesus was imprinted in Francis’ heart: to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow him (Luke 9:23). How, then, can we make sense of his caution about not depriving ourselves of what we really need?

Francis of Assisi, with his marvelous grasp of the human heart, understood intuitively what contemporary research proves consistently: there is a connection between unmet human needs and unwanted behavior. Whenever we human beings are chronically deprived of play, rest, connection, community, understanding, safety, nurture, or meaningful purpose in life, it is only a matter of time before we start acting out with entitled behaviors.

Deprivation feeds entitlement. Entitlement then seizes. Our grasping attitude may not be that far from that of Sméogol in Lord of the Rings: “We wants it, we needs it! Must have the precious! They stole it from us!” If you are not a Tolkien fan, then I imagine you can resonate with the words of the apostle Paul, “The good I desire I do not do, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19).

The immediate instinct in these cases is to assume that it is a problem of laziness or lack of discipline – often with no small amount of self-contempt and shame. We then punish ourselves by deprivation, telling ourselves we are doing penance and following Jesus. But in many cases, these penances embraced without discernment also begin to cut us off from what we truly need – from the things our hearts (and limbic brains) were looking for in the first place.

As a priest, I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years who struggle repeatedly with the same patterns of behavior. Any time I have curiously explored, I have always found a significant deprivation of one or more authentic needs. Deprivation is not the primary reason why people get stuck in unwanted behaviors, but it is almost always there as a driving force!

I’ve learned much from contemporary Christian authors like Mark Laaser or Jay Stringer. Mark (now deceased) helped thousands to find freedom from their addiction to pornography or worse, not to mention helping to restore many marriages. Jay conducted research with 3,800 men and women struggling with unwanted sexual behaviors. His book (entitled Unwanted) explores the causes and contributing factors that need to be addressed if a struggling individual desires to live differently. Both make a convincing case for the importance of paying attention to our human needs, whatever our unwanted behaviors might be. Mark and his wife Debbie (in the book Seven Desires) describe how every human needs to be heard and understood, affirmed, blessed, safe, touched in a meaningful way, chosen, and included. Jay discusses the importance of delight, rest, play, creativity, meaning, and purpose. If we have a serious lack in any of these areas, we are likely to find ourselves unfree in our decision making.

Today’s authors give more precise language to these needs, they are by no means the first to notice them! I think of the Rule of Saint Benedict (he lived from 480-547). Most of us today would find their monastic lifestyle quite penitential. But it is moderate compared with the desert monks that Benedict had learned from. His Rule seeks balance and adaptability. He frequently acknowledges the importance of a wise abbot offering accommodations to monks regarding their prayer or eating or sleep, based on what is truly best for them and the community.

And then there is the quotation from Francis. Here is the fuller story from his companion and biographer, Thomas of Celano:

“One night while all were sleeping, one of his followers cried out, ‘Brothers! I’m dying! I’m dying of hunger!’ At once [Francis] got up and hurried to treat the sick lamb with the right medicine. He ordered them to set the table … Francis started eating first. Then he invited the brothers to do the same, for charity’s sake, so their brother would not be embarrassed.”

Francis concludes with the important lesson: it is just as much a sin to deprive the body without discernment of what it really needs as it is to indulge in gluttony. And then he reminds them of the supreme rule of charity (Christ-like love of God and neighbor). Our freedom in receiving and giving love is the ultimate test in discerning the wisdom of any self-denial.

Finally, let us not forget the example of Jesus himself. His human needs mattered. As a human being, he definitely received understanding, safety, nurture, delight, care, connection, rest, and play – not all the time or from everyone, but in ways that left a lasting impact. Throughout his childhood, he received from Mary and Joseph, not to mention his heavenly Father. He spent less than 10% of his life giving in public ministry – and even then he received care from friends like Lazarus or Mary or Martha. Even in Holy Week, Jesus rested in Bethany with those friends – receiving hospitality and love. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he entered his Passion, Jesus reached out to his other friends (Peter, James, and John), asking them for connection and care.

Sometimes we don’t get what we need. Sometimes God even asks us to sacrifice things that we truly need – but usually he doesn’t. Over time, as deprivation of authentic human needs intensifies, our freedom tends to diminish, and with it our ability to receive and give freely in love. Our “sacrifice” will become joyless; our resentment will increase – and with it a Gollum-like grasping of entitled behaviors.

Discernment is the key. Jesus tells us to test a tree by its fruits. If self-denial is leading to growth in freedom, growth in faith, growth in hope, and growth in love, then we know it is being led by the Holy Spirit.

Yes, our greatest calling is to make a total gift of self and become the grain of wheat that dies so as to bear abundant fruit. That self-gift is only possible if (like Jesus) we humbly allow ourselves to receive, again and again, all that we need. Francis of Assisi and many other Saints understood. Their humble acknowledgement of their depth of human need allowed them to receive. Their receptivity opened them to the amazing joy of self-gift. May we learn from their example!

More Than We Can Handle?

“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”

At least that is what many Christians say in the face of trial or loss. But is it actually helpful? And is it true? I believe it is rather unhelpful, and only partially true.

I’ve written before on the importance of learning to sit with sadness – something we tend to avoid! It’s hard enough when it’s our own sorrow. We’d rather plunge into busyness or fixing or numbing rather than face our grief. But it’s especially hard when we are in the presence of other people’s pain. That’s when the advice or clichés come out!

First, we’ll try to fix it – if there seems to be a way of fixing. We’ll be “generous” and offer to help; we’ll make suggestions for books or podcasts; or we’ll compare this person’s pain with our own or that of a friend – anything to help make the pain go away, because we don’t like to feel it, and we definitely don’t like to feel powerless.

In some cases (tragedies or definitive losses), there is nothing we can do. When fixing doesn’t work, we start grabbing for clichés. Surely one of them will be the magic wand that will make this feeling of powerlessness go away! Surely one of them will help this person feel better so that I can feel better.

Are these clichés helpful? No, I would say not. They often have the effect of “blaming the victim” or shaming others for feeling the way they feel. Rather than compassion (“suffering with”), clichés are a way of stepping back from the pain of others and leaving them to suffer alone.

I suppose there is a time and a place for distracting or diverting from pain. Perhaps we are in a survival situation and lack the time, resources, or energy to engage head on. If mere survival is the best we can hope for at the moment, then we can indeed turn to our arsenal of distractions and find ways to minimize the pain.

Even when we are ready to face heartache, we are still human, meaning we are limited. We can’t face it all the time. It can be appropriate to take a break from our grieving, laugh together at a joke or a movie, plunge into a hobby or game, and so forth. A cliché could be helpful as permission to take a short break from the pain.

But if our Christian families and communities are unable or unwilling to accompany people as they face pain and heartache, then where can they go? Jesus does not want his Church to be a place of mere survival, but God’s own hospital in which we experience healing, redemption, restoration, and total transformation. That only happens by facing our heartache, taking up our Cross, following Jesus, dying amidst our powerlessness, watching and waiting, and experiencing the newness of the Resurrection. If we desire to be “helpful” to those in pain, we must first walk this path ourselves – as Jesus did. We can’t give what we ourselves have not experienced.

Is there any truth to this expression, that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”? Sort of.  Here is what the apostle Paul says:

“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

As you can see, the cliché is an oversimplification and distortion of what Scripture actually says.

Paul doesn’t attribute our trials directly to God’s agency. God permits or allows us to endure trials, but they are human. They are the result of a misuse of human freedom – by our first parents, by others who have caused harm, and by our own sins. Directly or indirectly, all trials in this life are the result of human sin. God allows these consequences because he has entrusted us with dignity, freedom, and  real authority amidst our stewardship.

God is faithful. He is absolutely committed to accompanying us through every trial. He will never abandon us, and will never leave us without every means of assistance that we truly need to move through the trial.

God provides a way out. There is a true exit to the trial. We tend to hunker down in our panic rooms, avoiding the heartache – and ultimately getting stuck. But Jesus himself, God’s own beloved Son, has plunged into our trials. He has gone there first, and has opened up a path to new life. If we follow him faithfully, if we share in his suffering and death, we will experience a radical newness and expansiveness – and not just “one day” in heaven.

As we see in the saints, there is an amazing foretaste of this newness that comes even in this life. If you study their lives, you will find a stunning diversity of humans, all with two common features: (1) They endured enormous trials; (2) They were incredibly joyful followers of Jesus.

Like them, we will be able to bear our trials: because God is faithful to his promises, because Jesus has blazed a trail for us, because he accompanies us, and because he won’t allow us to be tested beyond our strength. Therefore, we can hope.

Hope is the answer in the face of heartache. Hope refuses to be killed by suffering (or by clichés!). Hope perseveres – not by naïve optimism, not by secular stratagem, but by waiting persistently for our faithful God to fulfill all his promises. This is the hope of mother Mary standing at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday and at the tomb on Holy Saturday – believing God’s promise, staying present, enduring, pondering, and waiting. The joy of resurrection always comes to those who abide in hope.

May we be people of hope, this Lent and always!