Learning from Lamentations

We are living in days of painful loss and disorienting change. Our grief is great, but we don’t like to enter into it. Jesus teaches us that we will be blessed if we allow ourselves to be poor in spirit, and that we will be comforted if we allow ourselves to grieve and mourn. But we resist.

We live in a culture that has forgotten how to grieve well. We could really learn from Lamentations, that astounding book of the Bible that tells the tale of the woes that God’s people are experiencing in exile.

The Book of Lamentations is a series of intense and heartfelt cries to God, pouring out pain in poetry that is stunningly beautiful. At the time of writing, there is no certainty at all that God will even answer the cries – it feels very possible that the loss of his favor is forever. Yet the poet cries out all the same. He tells his sad story to God, and holds out Hope.

There is one verse that seems especially pertinent to us who are experiencing agony amidst a pandemic, a general election, a cultural collapse, violent divisiveness, and whatever personal problems are unique to me or you:

“Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lamentations 1:12).

We tend to minimize our own pain. “I have nothing to complain about – other people have it much worse.” That is a very quantitative way of looking at my suffering. Of course there are always going to be other people who are suffering “more.” That doesn’t negate how authentic my own suffering is!

In truth there is no sad story like my own story, nor like your own story. Each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, in God’s own image. My story and yours are utterly unique. God deeply desires that our whole story be told – including the sad and painful parts.

Think of a three-year old with intense nausea or a terrible toothache. What mom or dad would scold him, “Stop complaining – there are other people who have it so much worse!” True, the suffering of a toothache or nausea is not nearly as bad as a terrorist bombing or rape or genocide. But all suffering matters! Every hair on our head is numbered, and no problem is too big or too small for the living God.

Lament is a lost art. It is the telling of our sad story in a way that reaches out for comfort and care, and freely invites genuine human connection.

Lament is not to be confused with counterfeits such as self-pity or manipulation. I can think of many moments in my past, and even some in recent days, in which I have not behaved well when overwhelmed with shame or anxiety or fear. I sometimes react with childish outbursts that draw attention to how hard things are for me. In those moments of self-pity, I am not telling the truth about my story. I am grasping or taking, using or manipulating, or perhaps desperately trying to shift the shame I am feeling away from myself and onto someone else. Instead of describing truthfully what is happening inside of me, instead of vulnerably stating a need and freely asking others for kindness, I am playing on their emotions to try to take what I need. It doesn’t work, and it ruptures relationships. It tends to push others further away – which in turn easily feeds the lie in my heart that others will leave me all alone when life gets hard.

In some ways, we can’t help these less-than-kind behaviors. If we do not allow ourselves to grieve and lament, our heart will keep trying. It will come out sideways – in self-pity or manipulation, in blame or resentment, in outbursts of anger, in passive aggression, in depression, or even in bodily ailments. Our story deserves to be told, and our hearts, made in God’s own image, will keep fighting to bring our story to the light of day, even when we resist.

Lament tells our true story. It speaks the truth deeply, not so much about the factual events, but about what the experience was like. It paints a picture with the five senses, engaging the emotions and the imagination. This process takes enormous courage, because it activates our memory and draws us down into the depths. We easily fear we will never find our way out again. Those fears certainly didn’t stop Jeremiah (or whoever it was who poured out his grief in Lamentations).

Lament speaks the truth about the sad parts of our story, about the pain we are carrying. It refuses to lie or minimize. It fights the urge to shift the attention elsewhere. Far from masochism, lament is essential to authentic Hope. Instead of stashing our pain away, instead of living a compartmentalized and fragmented existence, our lamentation reaches out to the faithfulness of God for ultimate rescue and resolution. It complains to God and reminds him of his promises. It freely and meekly invites other human beings to stand with us as willing witnesses to our story, even at the risk of their saying no or bailing out. United in communion with other members of Christ, we willingly suffer and die with him, and watch and wait for the surprise of resurrection to come. As in the Book of Lamentations, we do not know when or how the rescue will come; we sense that some things are gone forever.  But for all that, we hold out Hope. We open ourselves to the possibilities promised by God, which are very well put in the words of the poet T.S. Eliot and the mystic Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

A Time to Replant and Rebuild

This past summer, I often found myself thinking of two great prophets. One is the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, and the other is a modern-day prophet, the pope of my childhood: Saint John Paul II (pope from 1978-2005).

I am definitely one of those who call him John Paul the Great, and I believe that he had prophetic insight and an uncanny ability to read the signs of the times. One of his deepest prophetic convictions was that we are now entering a “new springtime of evangelization” in the Church as we go forth boldly into the Third Millennium. He urged us with the words of Jesus to “put out into the deep waters” for a great catch. With Jesus, he often exhorted us: “Be not afraid!”

I remember twenty years ago when some of us would ask ourselves, “Why does he keep saying that? What is there to be so afraid of?” Today I can say with truth that these are sad and scary times to be a close follower of Jesus. AND they are times of enormous hope, great promise, and signs of new life. We can weep and lament the great ruin and destruction of much that is fair and beautiful AND notice the new growth and new life that is springing up.

The prophet Jeremiah captures the paradox perfectly, by appealing to seasons of the year. I had an “aha!” moment this summer while reading him. So much has changed in Church life, and it often leaves her members feeling disoriented, confused, or angry – even when their parishes make good and healthy changes. Part of the challenge is that the seasons have changed – and that means changing how we approach our labor in the Lord’s vineyard. With occasional exceptions, we in the Church today are not living the fall, in a time of fruitfulness and harvesting. We are passing through a harsh winter and beginning a new springtime.

The destruction and decimation has been going on for some time – especially for those of us in Catholic institutions. Our programs are often geared at children (in schools and in CCD programs), but the parents themselves – if they come to church at all – are often part of a second or third generation of Catholics who did not learn how to have a personal relationship with Jesus and who did not learn the basics of their faith. For at least fifty years now, when teens receive their Confirmation, they leave. We used to tell ourselves lies that they would come back eventually – when it was time to get married or to have their children baptized. A small percentage of them do; the great majority never return. Many of them specifically identify themselves as “ex-Catholics” or even “atheists.” Church marriages are down – way down. I could go on and on.

Much has been lost. God’s Temple and God’s vineyard are lying in ruins. There is cause for lamenting here.

When bad things happen, our human tendency is to avoid grieving – it’s so painful and hard. We typically pass through various stages as we grieve – denial, anger, blaming, bargaining, depression, and (hopefully) eventual acceptance. If we do not somehow express our grief and anguish, our anger and bitterness, we will not come to true acceptance. Presently, we are living in a toxic culture that does not know how to grieve in a healthy way. Most anywhere we turn, we are invited to numb our pain with addictive behaviors or to funnel our rage into political or ecclesial divisiveness.

By contrast, the prophet Jeremiah knew how to lament, how to express sorrow and anguish to God. So much did he turn to God and lament that there is an entire book of the Bible entitled “Lamentations,” traditionally attributed to him.

There was much to lament. The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem, destroyed God’s Temple, and taken most of the people into captivity. They were left with a mere remnant – just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold.

Weeping over ruins of once great cultures, once great nations, once great churches, and once great institutions is a holy and healing exercise.

I think the crumbling and ruin has been especially hard for longtime Catholics. With so many things changing or collapsing around them, they desire that their own parishes be the one hub of stability, the one constant in their life. But we can’t do that – not if we care about saving souls!

Most of our American Catholic institutions were built up in a season of summer and autumn. Our immigrant forefathers had a tenacious Faith and didn’t hesitate to sacrifice everything to build up these institutions. They were serious about prayer and serious about discipleship. Their children learned the faith from their parents and practiced it in the home. There was a great boom in the number of priests and religious sisters.

The programs set up in our parishes were all about harvesting the fruits from healthy vines that were already there. The presumption was that all the members were unquestionably committed to Jesus and to his Church. As long as most of them were, parishes were booming.

That was a very, very long time ago. The destruction has been enormous. Over half of those vines are now dead. Only a remnant remains.

I remember as a seminarian hearing our bishop (now the world-famous Cardinal Burke) express with the Psalmist: “Foundations once destroyed, what can the just do?” (Psalm 11:3). I remember as a young priest amidst teens in the high school, feeling the sad truth of those words and taking them to prayer. I remember God speaking clearly in my heart a hope-filled answer: REBUILD THEM. I received great peace and much motivation from those God-given words. I still do.

We will find more strength to rebuild if we allow ourselves time to lament. Lamenting is a lost art. When we truly express our grief, God comforts us. We find ourselves having new strength and new resolve. The writings of Jeremiah do not end in despair or anger, but in renewed hope, with many promises of replanting and rebuilding. A new springtime.

We are not in a season of summer and autumn anymore. We are living amidst a harsh winter that is transitioning into spring. What is more, the majority of the vines in our vineyard been ruined and destroyed.

Many of us need to do much lamenting and much grieving. We have more pain in our hearts than we care to admit. God wants to hear our cries. He wants to comfort us.

Then, when we are ready, he will show us what replanting and rebuilding look like. Many of the things that have passed away will never return again – not in the same way at least – and that is worth the shedding of tears. Meanwhile, the new growth is already there in our midst. Amazingly, from the very ruins, new vines are appearing. They are very vulnerable at this stage and need much nurturing and caring. But they are beautiful!

If we would like to see those new vines grow and bear fruit, we need to learn how to live in the seasons of winter and spring. Our parishes need to step back from the “same old” way of doing things and ask what it means to replant and rebuild. Instead of spending most of our time, money, and human resources on the vines that clearly are bearing no fruit, we need to recognize new and divine growth when we see it (sometimes it shows up in surprising places!). We can then focus our energy and attention there. New vines are fragile and need much protecting, much nurturing, and much gentle encouragement.

It may take many years to see the new fruitfulness – God alone knows. Sometimes we sow and others reap. But we can take hope in the fact that Scripture often promises otherwise. We are promised that the sowers will be overtaken by the harvesters (Amos 9:13), and that those who sow in tears will reap with joy (Psalm 126:6).