Learning to Sit with Sadness

The apostle Paul exhorts us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Doing so enriches the human experience and makes the love of Christ visibly present.

Unfortunately, heeding Paul’s advice is not so simple as it sounds. Rather than rejoicing, we are sometimes saddened at the successes of others. Rather than weeping, we sometimes avoid accompanying others in their misery. Sure, we’ll send them a sympathy card or drop off some food. We’ll say some pleasant-sounding words like “Everything happens for a reason” or “He’s in a better place.” But one or two or twelve month later, when the anguish is even worse, they find few friends still willing to be with them in their grief.

Sitting with others in their sadness can be one of the most unsettling things to do – especially when we are powerless to do anything about it. It is so much easier to throw a cliché at the unpleasant emotions, as though uttering an incantation that will magically make us all live happily ever after. The truth is that we are unsettled and are trying to protect ourselves from the mess of the other person’s experience.

I have written before on the importance of healthy grieving, and our human tendency to avoid it. Whatever our pain or loss may be, our human misery will be too much to bear if we try to do it alone. God made us for communion with himself and with each other. It is within healthy community that healing happens.

Unfortunately, healthy community can be hard to find. All too often, when it comes to grieving well, we encounter dysfunction in our families and even in our Christian churches. The more challenging emotions like anger or guilt or grief are unwelcome and avoided. They are seen as an evil to be eliminated, rather than a healthy part of the human experience. This extermination of unwelcome emotions can be done in a more abusive way (“Stop crying, or I’ll give you a reason to cry!”) or a more subtle way (“There are other people have it much worse…”). The unspoken message is “you shouldn’t feel that way.” But sometimes we do. It’s just a fact.

If we want to understand what it truly means to be human, we look to Jesus (the New Adam) and to Mary (the New Eve). They model so many virtues for us, including a refusal to shortcut the hardest human experiences like sadness.

“Jesus wept” (John 11:33). It’s the shortest verse of the Bible, and one of the most meaningful: Even though he is the resurrection and the life, even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb, Jesus wept. He wept over his dead friend. He wept with those who were weeping. He didn’t avoid or minimize the healthy human experience of grieving.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus became “sorrowful even to death” (Matthew 26:38). This was not a dismay at his own immanent death. Rather, he was freely taking upon himself the full depths of human suffering and misery – drinking it to the dregs. He felt in his heart every agony, every sorrow, every wound, every tragedy – the greatest of which is sin. He entered into our sadness and freely offered our human condition to his Father, crying out from the Cross the plea of every agonizing human heart: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Jesus’ empathy with human sorrow led him to the point of loud sobs and tears (Hebrews 5:7). Is that not what is popularly described today as an “ugly cry”? You know, the kind of uncontrollable sobbing that we suppress or avoid or feel deeply embarrassed about? Apparently, Jesus wasn’t worried about sobbing uncontrollably or oozing a little snot. Most of us are much more cautious and self-protective. As the poet T.S. Eliot used to say, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

The problem with painful emotions is that, well, they’re painful. We’d rather avoid the experience of powerlessness in the face of others’ suffering. It’s easier to flee or to fix. We “flee” by avoiding those around us who are suffering in an unbearable way, like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan story. Our withdrawing causes their experience of abandonment and isolation to become like that of the suffering servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, like one from whom people turn their face…” (Isaiah 53:3).

“Fixing” is no better than fleeing. Many Christian families and faith communities, in their avoidance of “ugly” emotions, try to make it all better with a pious saying or an invitation into busyness and distraction. Fixing is not grieving, and it doesn’t actually comfort anyone. When Job was in agony, he didn’t need fixing; he needed someone to sit on the dung pile and be sad with him.

On Good Friday, Jesus drank the chalice of human suffering to the full. He refused to numb his pain with the gall offered him. Likewise, his mother Mary stood at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). She suffered together with him, refusing to avoid or escape.

On Holy Saturday, Jesus descended into hell, and Mary continued watching and waiting in sorrowful hope. Perhaps she had some inkling of the resurrection to come – but surely not of when or how. Hope is hard. We know that God is faithful, but during the darkest moments we have no idea how long the suffering will last, or how our prayers will be answered. We are tempted to take a shortcut and avoid the full experience of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The joy of Easter Sunday indeed comes as promised – but often in ways that catch us by surprise. Intense sorrow is no obstacle to intense joy – quite the opposite. It is only when we learn to stop hardening our hearts and protecting ourselves that we become capable, not only of embracing the “ugly” human experiences that we’d rather avoid, but also of experiencing the boundless joy of the resurrection. May Jesus open our hearts and help us to empathize with each other as we watch and wait in hope.

Hope is Born from the Tomb

I remember April 12, 2009 – ten years ago today. It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem, and I was at the tomb of Jesus, filled with wonder and awe. I had spent the entire night there in prayer, and had just become the very first pilgrim to enter that Easter morning. It was an intense and 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 rather than at night. 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 8 a.m., 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. Back in the day, I certainly pulled two or three academic all-nighters. Several times I stayed up through the night as part of the world’s largest trivia contest in Stevens Point, WI. Ironically, that contest begins today as well, kicking off its 50th year.

Staying up for fun or for approaching deadlines is one thing. 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! On that Easter night ten years ago he was generous indeed.

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 arising within me. For the moment I put it aside. After all, I thought, I am not a poet!

About 12:30 the friars poured in to pray the Office of Vigils – a series of psalms and readings. Afterwards, I tried to return to some Scripture and prayer, but found myself distracted. In the end, I thought, “Well, maybe the Lord wants me to write that poem after all.” So I did. Once every 10 years, right? 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 Mass (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 some 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 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. He must have seen the longing in my face. He waved me in.

I approached, finishing the final Hail Mary’s, 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. The experience is still too profound for words. 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. It was not as though my sadness or the sadness of others magically went away or was minimized. But this Hope permeated my soul with an overwhelming and liberating confidence summed up in the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

I sobbed and prayed for a few moments more before heading back out, not wanting to linger in the tomb as pilgrims sometimes selfishly do. With many tears still in my eyes, I nodded my thanks to 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 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 chanted 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 rushing in to see the tomb.

As I look back ten years later, I am stunned at what came out of my heart that night. Only during the last couple of years have I found the courage to plunge into the sad and lonely places of my heart – old places of old pain that I didn’t even realize existed. But those cries were there, and they prayed 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 broken hearted.

Ten years later, God keeps drawing my heart back to that experience. There is a dying and a rising at work in me. Part of me resists and avoids the dying, tempted instead to return to my old ways of fear and insecurity, panicking and grasping for control. I am determined not to harden my heart and return to old ways. I want to be well! The tomb is also a womb, giving birth to the newness of the resurrection. That new birth is what my heart longs for.

It should be easy to welcome the Glory of the resurrection. But it’s so hard because it’s so much more real. It can only be received as a gift – or rather, it is a much larger reality that we must be received into. It is not something we can control or manage. Again and again I surrender my heart. I pray for deeper trust and faith. Who knows? Maybe I will even surrender enough to allow another poem to come out of me. It’s been 10 years after all…

In the days of Holy Week that lie ahead, we celebrate the Paschal Mystery once again. May we all die and rise with Jesus. May the newness of his risen Glory be born in our hearts. May we be gloriously transformed and filled with Hope!

Getting to the Roots

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Those words of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, written in 1854, still speak wisdom today. He was addressing social evils such as slavery, but the image applies equally well to marital strife and personal struggles with morality and spirituality. It’s an apt image in every case. Remove the evil fruit, and more will take its place, again and again.  Cut off the branch, and it will eventually grow back – along with the fruit it bears. If we are serious about change, we will need to go down to the roots.

Digging down to the roots of a tree is hard work enough. Doing so with the human heart takes enormous courage and vulnerability. We will never be able to do it alone. The prophet Jeremiah describes it well: “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, explore the mind and test the heart, giving to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Our own hearts are a mystery to us. Only in communion with God and others can we discover the full truth about ourselves.

I’ve shared before the insights of Mark and Debbie Laaser. They wrote a book for married couples entitled Seven Desires, in which they identify certain universal human desires: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. They often tell couples, “The problem is not the problem,” using the image of an iceberg. What we think of as “the problem,” what we focus so much of our energy and attention on, is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, silent and massive, lurks a strong force in motion that warrants much greater attention.

For example, Fred may be an alcoholic. At first glance, his drinking is the main problem in their marriage. After all, his acting out with alcohol has damaged his health, his career, and his relationships. But his drinking is not the primary problem. Lurking beneath are painful places of his heart that he does not want to enter: sad places, lonely places, feelings of unworthiness and shame, as well as distorted beliefs about himself and about God. He is afraid to go down there because of the pain. Little does he realize that, even deeper in his heart is the full and glorious truth about himself – that he is a beloved child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. In the depths of his good heart he still feels very deep and very good human desires: to be loved and accepted unconditionally, to feel safe and secure, and so forth. With the right kind of encouragement, he can reconnect with those deeper desires. Whether in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous or some other support network, he can find the encouragement and consistency needed to journey into the labyrinth of his heart – and discover God’s image there. Meanwhile, Fred’s wife Sally needs to discover that her deepest pain is not from Fred’s acting out with alcohol. She has an unexplored iceberg of her own, including deep desires and painful problems that existed long before she met Fred. She, too, will need enormous support to begin believing that her heart is good and worth fighting for.

Let’s return to Thoreau’s image of the roots of a tree. Bob Schuchts offers a similar image of the human heart in his book Be Healed. He contrasts the Tree of Life (an image for our life in Christ) with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (an image for our life of sin).  Drawing from Ephesians, he describes a process of security / maturity / purity as we grow from the roots to the trunk to the fruits. By contrast, our life of sin sprouts up from the roots of insecurity, grows in immaturity, and bears the rotten fruits of impurity. The unhealthy growth comes in the form of one or more of the seven deadly sins. The rotten fruit that emerges are the sins we priests typically hear people confessing –over and over and over again. Perhaps it’s gossip and jealousy, perhaps fault-finding and outbursts of anger, perhaps pornography and masturbation, perhaps overindulging in food and drink.

Those poor penitents sincerely desire to stop their sins. And without a doubt, they are forgiven every time. But they are likely to keep repeating the same sins until they can go down to the roots. There Bob describes the “seven deadly wounds” of abandonment, fear, powerlessness, hopelessness, confusion, rejection, and shame. We experience these wounds during the most painful moments of our life. It is within those deep human wounds that the evil one eagerly attempts to sow his lies: you are all alone, you will never figure it out, you will always mess it up, no one would ever want to love you… We can carry these lies within our hearts for many, many years.

Healing at the roots of our sins includes allowing Jesus to enter in and cast out the lies about ourselves and about God. Even more important than renouncing the lies, it means positively allowing the love and truth of Jesus to be proclaimed and embraced and integrated. It is one thing to believe a truth intellectually, but another for it to sprout and grow and bear fruit.

As we approach another Easter, may we all take courage in the fact that Jesus has borne our pain. By his wounds we are healed. He knows the depths of our hearts and desires to meet us there with his love and truth. May we all have the courage to go down to the roots.