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!

Hiraeth Part II: Beauty Breaks Through

In my previous post I explored the human experience of hiraeth, which the Welsh describe as a bittersweet ache of our heart for some kind of elusive homeland. It’s a rather unique word describing a rather universal human experience – at least for those willing to look deeply within their heart.

I suggested that the experience of hiraeth is ultimately an invitation into Christian hope. In the remotest depths of our heart we “remember” a homeland that has not yet come into full existence. We have tasted its fruits, like the Israelites on the edge of the promised land. Like them, we are held back by sadness and fear. By the power of God, Joshua (Yeshua in Hebrew) led the Israelites through dangers and into the promised land. Jesus (also Yeshua in Hebrew) will lead us through the dark valley and into his Kingdom, the fruits of which we begin to enjoy even now.

Even with Jesus at our side, it can be so hard to muster the courage to re-enter the dark and scary places of our heart. We live in a world that encourages us to escape reality and numb our pain. Instead of grieving well, many brokenhearted people turn to manifestly destructive behaviors: drunkenness, illegal narcotics, internet pornography, sexual promiscuity, impulse shopping, overeating, chain smoking, or compulsive gambling. Aside from addictions, we find more subtle ways of hurting self and others as we try to cope: being critical or sarcastic, “fixing” others, engaging in manipulative behavior, lying, peevishness, or fault finding.

Perhaps we don’t turn to behaviors that are directly hurtful, but run from our pain all the same. I think here of activities such as daydreaming, spending long hours playing video games, binge watching TV shows, a never ending quest for tattoos or piercings, fanatical exercising, plunging into busyness or careerism, obsession with sports, and so forth. We numb and anesthetize, hoping somehow to avoid our pain forever. But it will not go away on its own.

Please don’t get discouraged in reading these lists! Probably all of us engage in some level of coping. It’s part of our survival instincts – which are there by God’s design to help us get through the troubles of life. The problem is when the “high alert” switch gets stuck in the “on” position and we don’t learn how to calm down and face reality.

I look back now on my childhood and realize that I had an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual pain without knowing how to face it. I coped for several years by turning to extensive daydreaming, and so I struggled in school and in sports. As I entered adolescence, I learned how to pay attention and became an overachiever. All seemed well, but it was actually a new way of trying to escape from pain. I spent my down time playing thousands of hours of video games, and otherwise strove towards every accolade I could achieve. There was good that came from all of these things – but they ultimately avoided the pain rather than help me overcome it.

Thankfully, truth and goodness and beauty have a transcendent power. They are always capable of lifting up the human spirit. In my Catholic high school years, I experienced a significant spiritual conversion. Even as I strove to “achieve” in my religion classes, I was captivated by the objective truth and goodness and beauty that I encountered. God writes straight with our crooked lines. My faith and spiritual life deepened, and I went on to have many profound moments of conversion.

Nonetheless, there was still plenty of minimizing and false hope, ignoring the signs that all was not well with my soul. It was only during the most recent years of my life that I realized the need to grieve some of those old wounds in earnest.

For me, as for many others, there were formidable walls of pride and self-protection. In my need to feel safe, I found ways to isolate and protect those places of pain – also keeping the out the good in the process. At times truth and goodness would beat at the door, and I would yield, even if it was painful. I cannot stand to live a lie. But I can be pretty darn skilled at minimizing. My mind is a gift that sometimes works against me.

But beauty breaks through. It has a way of catching us when our guard is down and sneaking past our defenses. Occasionally over the years I would find myself tearing up at scenes in movies. I didn’t always understand why (and was glad no one could notice in the darkness of the theater). But when I became serious about facing past wounds and growing in hope, I realized that I would benefit from turning actively to art, music, poetry, movies, and other aesthetic expressions. I sought and found those that spoke to my heart. And speak they did. I let the tears flow – sometimes cathartically. I talked to trusted friends and to the Lord about what I was experiencing. Layer by layer, the encounter with beauty has helped to heal my heart and increase my hope.

We all have dark and scary places in our heart that we would rather avoid. Thankfully, like Peter and James and John on Mount Tabor, we occasionally receive a glimpse of glory, a foretaste of our true destiny. Like them, we can find the strength to endure the darkness of Good Friday and journey forward in hope to the glory of the Resurrection and Ascension.

From Hiraeth to Hope: Healthy Grieving

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful Welsh word: hiraeth. It’s one of those impossible-to-translate words. Hiraeth describes a nostalgic longing, a homesick yearning, a painful ache – perhaps for a homeland or an era that no longer exists. The Welsh are quite insistent that it means much more than mere nostalgia for past people or things or places. It wells up from deep within our hearts, and may include grieving over a past that never was or a future that could have been but is now impossible. It seems to seek a true homeland whose grasp is elusive, one that could never fully be attained or sustained in this life. In that regard, hiraeth and hope seem closely connected.

Hope is a God-given virtue that increases in us a deep desire for fulfillment in Christ’s Kingdom. Hope allows us to be aided by the Holy Spirit so that we can renounce self-reliance and place our trust entirely in Christ and his promises, which will never deceive or disappoint. For he is Truth itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1818) describes hope as elevating and purifying our own yearnings for happiness, bringing them all into subjection to Christ and his Kingship, ordering them towards their true fulfillment. Hope liberates us from discouragement and sustains us when we feel alone and abandoned.

How do we move from hiraeth to hope?

I am convinced that the process involves healthy grieving of one kind or another. Jesus tells us that those who mourn are blessed, and that they will be comforted. Every tear will be wiped away. But we must first pass through the dark places of our heart, our valleys of tears – preferably with all earthly and heavenly helps at our disposal.

Hiraeth is described as bittersweet – and not merely because one had something happy that is now gone. There is so much more. I believe the bitter ache is welling up from a much deeper place in our heart, a dark valley that most of us fear and avoid. The sweetness is welling up from an even deeper place, a place beyond the valley of tears, where God whispers our true eternal identity in our  heart.

Ecclesiastes describes an appointed time for everything under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, etc. The author remarks that God has “placed the timeless into their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our deepest, truest self knows that all else is vanity and emptiness, and will pass away. That inevitable loss is sad indeed. But hope of our true destiny spurs us on, giving us the determination and the endurance that we need to pass through the valley of tears.

How do we grieve well? The ancients tell us that virtue is found in the middle course. One extreme is to be stuck in the past, paralyzed by nostalgia, incapable of letting go or moving on. At the opposite extreme some of us “rush ahead” into hope, pretending like everything is swell. In doing so, we are denying or minimizing our pain. It will come back with a vengeance. I think of the Pixar film Inside Out as a masterful illustration of our need for healthy grieving and the unhelpfulness of trying to mask over our pain with false joy or false hope.

Just as abiding in the Lord and bearing fruit is long and patient work, so also walking the path from hiraeth to hope will often be slow and arduous. It may require the hard work of clearing out obstacles or cooperating with God in removing toxic filth. It is not a “one and done” task. Therapists compare grieving with the process of peeling layers from an onion. We shed so many tears and receive so much healing that we think the process must surely be done now – only to discover more layers.

Our pain may come from various sources: death of loved ones, sudden tragedy, betrayal or victimization, childhood abuse or neglect, or the creeping realization of old age and human mortality. Often it is the oldest wounds, still unhealed, that cause the most pain. When we find ourselves “overreacting” to a situation in the present moment, it is likely a sign that the situation somehow poked at an old unhealed wound. Such moments are painful, but they are great opportunities to receive the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one.” Therefore being a Christian means allowing ourselves to be anointed. Receiving ointment on unhealed wounds is painful, but is far better than leaving them to fester!

When life touches an old wound, rather than blame the person or situation that upset us, we can heed the invitation to return to the valley of tears. There we can receive strength and anointing from on high, which always happens so much better in healthy community than as an isolated individual. We can reach out to trusted friends, the godly people in our life who know better than to try to “fix” our problems, who will listen to us and give us the encouragement we need to persevere.

On this journey, I think of the wise men following the star together to Bethlehem. They experience a longing very akin to hiraeth. They don’t go it alone, but travel together. They are humble enough to seek and receive guidance from others. They support and encourage one another during their long trek. They have no idea where they are ultimately going, but they trust the deepest yearnings of their heart, and they recognize truth and goodness and beauty when they find it.

When it comes to healthy grieving, sojourning from hiraeth to hope, we very much need the support of others. In communion with them, we will be more open to receiving the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. We will be more disciplined in rooting out from the valley of tears the poisonous plants that block our path to our true homeland.

There are other hindrances and helps to consider. I’ll share more next time.

God is Faithful

Advent is a season of promise and fulfillment. We abide in expectant hope, confident that God is faithful. He never breaks his promises. We can trust him with total vulnerability and receptivity.

I must confess that trusting God’s promises – really trusting them – has been a lifelong challenge for me. I often surrender myself in faith and hope and love. But I have a pattern of “crossing my fingers” and holding back a little something for myself. There can be a clutching in my heart, a nagging doubt, a lingering fear that God might not really come through for me. I don’t always verbalize that doubt or have awareness of it. But part of my heart still struggles. There is that temptation to cling to an escape clause, a golden parachute, or a “Plan B” – just in case. I am guessing the same is true for many of you.

Scripture offers us lively examples of faith in God’s promises: Abraham, Joseph, and Mary.

Abraham is our father in faith. God commands him to leave behind his country and go to a land yet to be named. God promises make of him a great nation. Abraham trusts and abides. God promises to give him descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. According to those chapters of Genesis, Abraham is 75 at the time of God’s promise, and waits until the age of 100 for the fulfillment! Yet Abraham trusts and abides. Some years later, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac. Abraham continues to trust and abide, proclaiming to Isaac, “God himself will provide a lamb” (Genesis 22:8). God celebrates Abraham’s faith, and does indeed provide the lamb. He sends his own beloved Son Jesus, places the wood of the cross on his shoulders, and invites him up the mountain of Calvary to offer and be offered as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

That promise of saving us from our sins is also given to Joseph in Matthew 1. God sends his angel in a dream, assuring Joseph that his wife is pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is to name the child Jesus (“Savior”) because he will save his people from their sins. Joseph trusts and abides.

Joseph continues trusting and abiding in Bethlehem, amidst circumstances that would lead most men to panic or rage. This great savior-child is born amidst animals and laid to rest in their feeding trough. Joseph trusts and abides following another dream, in which God sends his angel to command him to rise, take the mother and child, and go into Egypt until commanded otherwise. Joseph rises, takes the mother and child, and goes. He knows not how long they will be there, where they will stay, or how they will be provided for. He trusts that God is faithful. Scripture never records any spoken word on his part. But every single time God issues a command to him, he promptly obeys, abiding in faith and hope.

Luke offers the example of the Virgin Mary. His Gospel begins with two parallel stories, as the births of John and Jesus are announced. Zechariah and Mary are contrasting figures. Both are righteous and pleasing in God’s eyes. Both are promised a very special son under quite impossible circumstances. Both ask questions about God’s promises.

But there is a great difference in their questioning. Zechariah asks, “How can I know this?” He does not fully trust; part of him desires to comprehend and be in control. Mary, meanwhile, trusts and abides. Elizabeth praises her for believing that God would fulfill his promises (Luke 1:45). Mary’s question is “How will this be?” In Greek the grammar is more obvious. If there were doubt about the outcome, Luke would employ the subjunctive or optative (“How could this be?”). But he uses the indicative mood. She believes that the promises will be fulfilled, and desires to understand more deeply. In her lively example, we see that trusting and abiding doesn’t mean that we have to be a helpless victim or a passive bystander. There is a faith-filled way of questioning God. Mary does not shrink back in fearful submission, nor does she willfully demand a total explanation. She freely and actively gives her “yes” and grows in her expectant hope as the mystery gradually unfolds. She does not succumb to any urge to panic or rebel.

Personally, I am quite skilled at what some of my friends call “future tripping.” My mind and heart fantasize about the “what if” scenarios, and I find myself consumed with anxiety or sadness as I grapple to stay in control. God keeps inviting me to be a little child, trusting and receptive. He will shepherd me. He will protect me. He will lead me. He will nourish me. He will heal me. He will wipe away every tear. He will provide for all my needs. He will fulfill each and every one of my deepest desires. He is the one who put them there in the first place.

Advent is a time of promise and fulfillment, a time to trust and abide. The examples of Abraham, Joseph, and Mary are truly inspiring. We can trust the living God, who never lies and never breaks his promises. Paul’s prayer for his people can be a prayer for each of us this Advent:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

The Communion of Saints

As most of you know, “Hallowe’en” is short for All Hallows’ Eve. Tonight is the vigil of All Saints. On this day, we rejoice in the victory that God has already won in the lives of the holy men and women who have gone before us in faith. They are now fully alive in the heavenly Body of Christ. Their triumph in Him gives us hope amidst our difficulties.

They also give us comfort and support. We are not alone in our struggle. We are united with them in love. For Christ’s Body is one.

You may recall the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. He heard the voice of Jesus questioning him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Not “Why are you persecuting my followers?” But “Why are you persecuting me?” Christ and his members are one. Many parts but one living body. Branches abiding on the vine. Living stones in the temple. Bride and bridegroom united as one flesh.

Paul’s encounter was not simply a one-on-one personal encounter with Jesus. It was an encounter with the whole mystical reality that is the Church. The encounter changed Paul’s life was forever. His old self died, along with his desperate striving for self-righteousness. He took on a completely new existence “in Christ” – a phrase that he went on to use 165 times in his letters! He understood our existence “in Christ” as a totally new identity, now no longer in isolation, but in an abiding communion with God and neighbor. In Romans 6 he described faith and baptism as causing us to die with Christ and rise with him to new life.

We are united in Christ in a living communion of love that far transcends the here and now. Saint Augustine offers a panoramic view of the Church as the whole Christ united in love:

“His Body is the Church, not this or that church, but the one that is spread throughout the world, not only that which exists now in the men and women of this present life, but includes also those members who existed before us and those who will exist after us – all the way to the end of the world.  For the whole Church, made up of all the faithful (for all the faithful are members of Christ) has in heaven that head placed over her that guides his body. Though separated in vision, she is united as one in love.”

The Apostles’ Creed is a prayer treasured by Catholics and Protestants alike. In it, we profess our belief in the “communion of saints.” The Latin phrase is sanctorum communio, words that are delightfully ambiguous. They can mean “fellowship of holy people” as well as “sharing of holy things.” In fact, “communion of saints” means both. When one member of the Body suffers, all suffer. When one is exalted, all are exalted. Christ and his Bride are truly one flesh. They share everything together.

In our present days of darkness and division, this heavenly communion should give us great hope and encouragement. We are not alone. We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). They have already conquered in Christ. They are now cheering us on as we run the race and fight the good fight.

Their triumph and their love also nurtures our deepest and holiest desires – which often lie dormant and forgotten, buried beneath the stress and chaos of our lives. Chief among those desires is the virtue of hope. Christian hope is a deep and intense longing for our true heavenly homeland.

There are many counterfeit versions of “hope” these days – political ideologies, fantasy escapes, worldly success, or the promise that technology can solve all our problems. These false hopes promise much but deliver little. They leave us disappointed, as the thing-hoped-for proves not to be the answer to our heart’s deepest questions.

True hope does not disappoint. We are destined to be perfected in the love of Christ. If we freely cooperate with his free gift, we will one day be strong enough and pure enough and holy enough to see God in the face and live. Mind you, He already loves us dearly. But we are not yet ready to receive all that love in all the ways he would love to share it. He prepares us step by step. Our capacity to receive needs to be stretched. Our desire needs to grow and grow. The more intense our longing for the Lord, the more capable we become of receiving true holiness.

Often, it is precisely through the painful trials of life that God blesses and strengthens us the most. In the moment they are cause for misery, but over time they emerge as part of a larger and beautiful story. Jesus compares the experience to a mother in labor, who finally gives birth. Paul compares it to athletes in training, with their eyes on the prize. Scripture frequently speaks of gold or silver plunged into the furnace, purified of all dross so that God’s glory can shine forth.

In this life or the next, all of us are destined to be purified by the fire of God’s love and come to shine with the saints in heaven. I have never heard that encounter described more beautifully than in the words of Pope Benedict XVI:

“…the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw … and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.”

May we all draw inspiration from the holiness of the saints. May we be unafraid of the intensity of God’s love, which is indeed an all-consuming fire. Rather, may we be filled with true hope, abiding in God’s love until all his promises are fulfilled.