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.

Mary’s Receptivity

Today we celebrate the Annunciation. God sends the archangel Gabriel to announce our salvation to the Virgin Mary. God promises to send us a savior, a mighty king, the Messiah, his own beloved Son. Mary gives her free and wholehearted “yes!” to God’s message. The Word becomes flesh and dwells in our midst, beginning by abiding in the womb of the Virgin Mary for nine months.

Mary models for us what it means to receive. She is an empty vessel who eagerly accepts all that God gives – without adding or subtracting or altering. Yet, far from a passive bystander, she actively engages the entire process from beginning to end. Moreover, she shares the experience in communion with many others. The joy of the gift she is receiving leaps like flames of fire into the hearts of John the Baptist and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the angels, the Magi, Simeon, and Anna.

Receiving love should be the easiest thing in the world to do. Is it not a deep desire of our human heart? Yet somehow, receiving love proves exceedingly difficult! Speaking for myself, I daily notice layers of self-protection and resistance to the free and wholehearted receptivity that Mary so joyfully exhibits. My fear and my pride repeatedly get in the way. Even when I do begin to receive, it is not usually a steady abiding. It proceeds in fits and starts, two steps forward and one step back.

Receptivity is a theme quite dear to me – one that I ponder often. In a more academic fashion, I delved deeply into this topic as I researched and wrote my doctoral thesis. If you are ever needing a sleep aid, you may find it a great help! Truly it has the worst title ever: The Ecclesiological Reality of Reception Considered as a Solution to the Debate over the Ontological Priority of the Universal Church. In fact, I had to add another hundred pages just to ensure that the title would fit on the spine of the book. Well okay, maybe not – but it’s still a terrible title, and not a book most people would enjoy reading.

Nevertheless, the core insight I received in writing the thesis was a simple and spiritual one: Receptivity is at the core of our identity in Christ. The Church is a community of reception by her very nature. To be a Christian means being received and receiving. First and foremost, that means being taken up into the one Body of Christ – a reality that always looms over us and calls us into deeper conversion. Ephesians describes God’s eternal plan of drawing all things into one in Christ. Little by little, this Body of Christ grows to full stature. One day, he will become all in all. The life of heaven will be the life of the one Body of Christ.

Our encounter with this living and breathing Body of Christ changes everything. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). Jesus did not say “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting my followers?” He said, “Why are you persecuting me?” To be a disciple of Jesus is to be received into his very flesh.

However, being a Christian also means actively and freely cooperating, eagerly desiring to grow and to receive more and more of the fullness of Christ, to become who we are. Our faith in Jesus becomes active in good works, as we grow and bear fruit, building up the body in love.

Finally, to be a Christian means to be receptive of each other, just as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7). That visible communion among believers is the good fruit that emerges. Love of neighbor is a wonderful litmus test of our love of God. As the apostle John reminds us, if we do not love our fellow Christians, whom we see, we cannot claim to love the God we do not see (1 John 4:20). Saint Augustine comments on our need to love our enemies and to love the poor in our midst. If we say we love Jesus, but do not love these little ones, we are effectively giving Jesus the embrace of peace while stomping on his feet with spiked boots. Ouch.

That brings us back to the Virgin Mary, and her holy example of receptivity. She models all these virtues of reception. First and foremost, she is passive. There was no question of being “creative” in the moment of the Annunciation. The initiative was entirely on God’s side, and her deepest desire was to receive. True receptivity is perfectly passive before the divine mystery. In humility and silence and peace, we become like a mirror that reflects God’s glory.

Yet her passivity, her radical receptivity, did not mean any shutting down of her God-given faculties. She loved him with all her heart and mind and soul and strength. And so she asks the angel, “How can this be?” Actually, the Greek literally says, “How is this?” Unlike Zechariah, Mary does not doubt God’s promise. She believes that what is spoken will be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). But true faith desires understanding. True faith desires a free and active cooperation, matching God’s initiative step for step with a  free and wholehearted response, a total “yes!” – as though she were a partner in a divine dance with the Lord. She is always attuned to God’s initiative and responding to it. Luke tells us twice that Mary ponders God’s mysteries in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). Recognizing that the mystery is ever greater than she is, she keeps actively cooperating while passively surrendering.

Finally, Mary’s heart is wide open to communion with others – receiving and being received by the many members of the Body of Christ. She sets out in haste to visit Elizabeth and share what she has received. The scene of the Visitation is one of joyful recognition of the mighty deeds of the Lord. The infant John recognizes the infant Jesus, and dances for joy. Elizabeth praises the mighty things God is doing in and through Mary – a truth which Mary affirms and celebrates. Far from false humility, she sings God’s praises, and even prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. However, all praise goes to God her savior. She is merely the empty and receptive vessel who has received God’s Word and freely cooperated.

The love of Jesus truly sets us free. He is our savior. That love flows in and out of us in the person of the Holy Spirit, who is the soul, the lifeblood of this Body of Christ, whose members we are. We drink deeply of this Spirit, and share the same Spirit as we give our love to others. The gift is meant to be received and given, to flow in and out as the Heart of Jesus sustains us all in unity and peace. On this, Mary’s feast day, may she help unclog our hearts so that we may be truly receptive and abide in the love of Christ.

Untying Knots with Mary

Over the last two weeks, I have reflected on the need to unlearn what we have learned and to be disentangled from unholy agreements. Today I would like to reflect on the assistance we can find by turning to our blessed mother Mary as we seek full freedom in Christ.

Mary is sometimes referred to as the “Undoer of Knots” – a devotion popularized by Jorge Mario Bergoglio (better known as Pope Francis). In 1986, Bergoglio spent a few months in Germany. He never finished his doctoral thesis, but he found himself captivated by  an image of Mary in the church of Saint Peter in Augsburg. The painting is the work of Johann Georg Schmidtner (completed around 1700).  It depicts one angel feeding a knot-laden ribbon into Mary’s capable hands. Beneath her calm and persistent gaze, we see the other end of the ribbon passing back down, knot free, into the hands of another angel. Bergoglio took his newfound devotion back to Argentina. With his papacy, it has spread throughout the world.

Its popularity is not a surprise. The image speaks so readily and so deeply to the human heart. Children instinctively bring their tangles and knots to their mother, often in frustration and exasperation. Under her calming and soothing gaze, what had seemed overwhelming and impossible becomes livable and manageable. They find that she has eased their agitation and restored their hope.

This childlike need for soothing and calming does not go away when we enter adulthood. We get just as tired and just as agitated. We have our “meltdowns” and frustrations and tantrums. We are merely much better at hiding and pretending and denying our need for help. If anything, the tangles and knots we experience in adult life are far more complex and scary!

The idea of Mary as one who unties knots is actually an ancient one. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, writing about A.D. 180,  describes Mary as the New Eve who unties the knot wrought by our first mother: “And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” Just as Eve became the mother of all the living, so is Mary now the mother of all those who are alive in Christ as members of His Body.

Jesus knew our lifelong need for a spiritual mother, and so He gave Mary to each of us when He died on the Cross: “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple there whom He loved, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27). If you read John’s Gospel carefully, you will note that the name “John” is never given. Rather, he uses “beloved disciple” or “the disciple whom he loved.” This allows each of us to put ourselves into that identity as a beloved disciple. When Jesus gives Mary as a mother, he is not creating a mother-son relationship between Mary and John only, meant to last merely a couple of decades. In that case, why bother to record the conversation? If ever there was a dying man whose last words are charged with meaning and intentionality, it is the eternal Son of God who died on the Cross for us! He wills us to receive and be received by Mary as our mother. We need her motherly care as we grow into our identity in Christ.

Although Schmidtner’s painting is beautiful, I chose instead to share this less-known icon written by Alfred Rebhan. It speaks powerfully to my heart. Living now by faith in Christ Jesus, we are one with him. The life we live now is not our own (Galatians 2:20); we literally become Christ. His Father is now Our Father. His mother Mary is now our mother. When we need a soothing and calming mother who can aid us, she is there, just like the Virgin in this icon, placing her gentle and encouraging hand on our shoulder as we (one with Christ) find the freedom to face our knots and untie them.

That has certainly been my story – especially during the last couple of years of my life, which have been truly transformational. Devotion to Mary has been at the center of that conversion. I sought her aid in my desire to untie one or two frustrating knots. Little did I realize that I would need to face a massive tangle of interconnected knots, long ago buried and forgotten in the basement of my heart: including lies, unholy agreements, unhealed wounds, and much more. Little by little, I have been learning to be open and receptive like the Christ Child – who emptied himself completely and let himself depend upon His heavenly Father and upon Mary His mother. Apart from Christ (and apart from his blessed mother) I am powerless to disentangle these knots. But one with Him, close to His blessed mother and close to other members of His Body, I am finding the freedom and peace I need to proceed and persevere.

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).

Watching and Waiting

Advent is a season of watching and waiting, a time of abiding in expectant hope, confident in the coming of the King.

Advent is so much more than preparing for Christmas. The early days of Advent focus especially on the second coming of Jesus. Our watching and waiting for his coming is not static and sterile, sitting here idly until some future day when he eventually comes. Rather, theologians often speak of an “already but not yet.” Christ has not yet come in glory, but he is already growing and bearing fruit in the lives of his holy ones.

There is a famous Advent homily in which Saint Bernard of Clairvaux describes a third coming of Jesus, in between his birth at Bethlehem and his coming in glory. No, he is not talking about “the rapture,” but rather the coming of Jesus into the heart of every true believer. As Jesus promised at the Last Supper, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him” (John 14:23).

This coming into our heart is a process of dynamic growth and nurturing. As we abide in expectant hope, our desire for the Lord increases. That desire is itself springs from a seed planted by the Lord.  The more we desire his coming, the more our capacity to receive him grows. The greater our capacity, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more deeply we desire. And the cycle of “already but not yet” continues until he comes again.

Think upon the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Christ sows his Word. Some seeds fall on the path, others on rocky ground, others among thorns, and others into good soil. Advent is a time to become good soil, totally receptive, growing in faith and hope.

That is the sad irony of December in the modern world. In the midst of Advent, we are constantly exposed to commercialism and consumerism and unneeded busyness. The self-indulgence of “the season” in society around us can be a rather different cry from the penitent cry of John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord.” We can easily heap excessive expectations upon ourselves, thinking of all the things that we “have to get done.” Then we find ourselves too busy or stressed out to do any watching or waiting. But are we not free to order our lives as we choose?

With God’s help, we can recognize some of the weeds and thorns in our heart, obstacles that need to be uprooted with firm resolve. We also have hard and dry places in our hearts, tough soil that needs the gentle dew of the Holy Spirit to soften and moisten, freeing us to become totally receptive like Mary and Joseph.

Our free cooperation matters much. But in the end, God is the one who provides the growth and provides the fruit. We are called to abide in love. The watching and waiting is challenging! We are so conditioned to expect instant gratification and easy results.  The parable of the sower reminds us to be patient and receptive.

Henri Nouwen wrote often about our powerlessness, and how challenging it is for us to be humble and patient. We depend totally upon God for the growth – much like the farmer in the field. Nouwen offers the image of an impatient gardener digging up the plant periodically to check on its growth. That tactic definitely doesn’t work! How hard it is sometimes to watch and wait in hope, trusting that we are a beloved child of God and allowing the growth to happen on his timeline.

For the time being, it is the growth that matters. The fruitfulness will come eventually, so long as there is steady growth. By contrast, we will wither and die if we cut ourselves off from the source of all growth.

Healthy Christian community helps so much. True Christian friends will notice what God is doing in us and encourage us. It is good to notice the growth God is working and to praise him for it. That thankfulness and praise stirs up the desire of our heart all the more. There is no risk of pride when our heart is Christ-centered and full of praise.

Psalm 1 offers a image of the tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, putting out its roots to the stream, staying green amidst the drought, whose leaves never fade, prospering and bearing fruit. Contrast that with the ways of the wicked, who linger in the ways of fruitless desires. They are like the chaff that gets blown away.

It is easy – especially at this time of the year – to become anxious or overwhelmed and then plunge ourselves into one of our “panic rooms” – reaching for our phone, grabbing extra food or drink, plunging into pleasures that don’t actually bring peace.

Instead, we can choose to be patient and gentle with ourselves. It is normal to feel unsettled during changes of seasons and when re-connecting with family. Instead of isolating ourselves, we can choose to stay present to our heart, present to Christ, and present to those around us. We can receive grace and grow in patience. The fruit will come in due time.

Advent has always been a favorite season of mine. It touches the deepest desires of the human heart. May God give us all the courage to root out the weeds from our hearts. May he cultivate and soften the hard and unreceptive places. And may he help us to abide in expectant hope, watching and waiting patiently as Christ comes to us, gives us growth, and bears much fruit.