Communion Heals Shame

Shame secretly torments every one of us as fallen human beings. It affects every single relationship we have – with God, with each other, and with ourselves.

Recall the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. The devil seduces by inviting a mistrust of God’s goodness and generosity. Once Adam and Eve choose to be their own gods, they experience the reality of that rupture. They run and hide from God (as though he were a petty tyrant eager to punish them). They sew fig leaves and begin protecting themselves against each other. Their good human passions become unruly – in themselves and their descendants. One need not read far into Genesis to experience the downward spiral of depravity. We begin to use, manipulate, envy, hate, and kill.  Shame is at the root of it all.

Brené Brown is a fellow Catholic who often speaks or writes about shame. She describes it as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It warns us when connectedness is under threat. It shows up in our bodies as a neurological warning signal, swiftly and intensely seizing our attention and launching us into a survival response. We all know the experience of “overreacting” in the present moment. What is really going on? Our body is feeling the familiarity of rejection, abandonment, failure, or humiliation. And our limbic brain is catapulting us into a survival response. Without even thinking, our defenses spring into action: fawn, fight, flight, freeze, or (as a last resort) shutting down. Depending on the situation (and on the skills we’ve learned over the years), we placate or smooth things over; we power up and begin shaming the other person; we change the subject or leave the room (or grab our phone and plunge into our screen); we freeze up and just take it; or we go numb and stop feeling anything. In intense situations of threat, these are actually brilliant responses that give us a better chance of surviving! But in everyday life they really rupture our relationships.

Unhealed shame fuels contempt. I have always found it to be the case that those of us who are hard on others are experiencing (or intensely avoiding) our own shame. Our self-contempt shifts into a contempt of others and an urge to make them pay. Just spend a minute or two on social media and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about!!

In my own life, God has provided many moments of melting my shame. One was totally life-changing.  I was a 23-year-old in the seminary in Washington, D.C. Some very challenging circumstances – including a severe lapse of judgment on my part – left me feeling intense shame for months. I remember one Sunday simply not wanting to go to Mass anywhere. I couldn’t bear being seen. That put me in an intense bind. Not going to Sunday Mass was simply unthinkable for me, but that inner conviction was in a mighty tug-of-war with my desperate urge to hide and isolate. Even attending anonymously across the street to the National Shrine felt unbearable. I slinked upstairs to a little chapel to pray, and there found two resident scholars, Romanian priests. They were offering Mass in their own language, and I had a way out of my dilemma – for now.

It was in this season that my friend Peter “saw” me and drew near to me. Peter was a 37-year-old who was about to be ordained a priest. I desperately miss him – he died in his sleep only four months into priesthood! He and I had many talks, in which – without naming it at the time – he helped me feel seen, soothed, safe, and secure (to borrow language from Curt Thompson). I didn’t want to be seen. I told him as much. I’ll never forget his words: A good friend is someone who sees right through you – and loves you anyway. And that was the thing – Peter wasn’t seeing the perfectionist version of me, nor the always-succeeding version of me. He was seeing all of me, telling the full truth, and (for some reason I simply couldn’t fathom) he was still eager to have a relationship with me. It was so dumbfounding and so healing.

He provided for me what Jesus so often provided in the Gospel – with the apostle Peter, with the woman caught in adultery, with Zaccheus, with Matthew, or with the woman at the well. He saw right through them, but he saw them in their wholeness. He invited them into communion: follow me.

The Greek word is koinonia – which means not only “fellowship” (as many Protestant Bibles translate it) but a true sharing or participation in the communion of the Trinity and of the whole Body of Christ. Because Jesus has reconciled us to the Father and to each other through his blood shed on the Cross, we now have a place to belong. In a sense, our shame is speaking truth – we can never become “worthy” by our own best efforts – and we don’t have to! Jesus declares us worthy and invites us to be secure in his Father’s love. THEN we can begin growing and bearing fruit.  Apart from him we can do nothing.

But it’s never just “me and Jesus.”  He always places us in koinonia with each other. He desires his Church to be a community in which we all have ways of experiencing what I did way back when with my friend Peter. We all need fellow Christians who see right through us and love us anyway!

I invite each of us to recognize the ways that we sabotage or block real community from happening in our families and in our churches: Do we let our whole self be seen? When and how and by whom? Do others feel totally safe and secure in our presence, knowing they don’t have to hustle or hide? Why or why not?

Authentic communion heals shame. We all ache for that – and are perhaps terrified of it at the same time. Will we allow the Holy Spirit to create it in our midst?

Failure IS an Option

FDo you ever experience a fear of failure? I know I do!

Sometimes it’s a stew of anxiety, simmering throughout the day. Other times it’s a sudden eruption of panic or peevishness amidst what had seemed a moment of calm. When I pay attention and reflect, I can see that there is a significant fear of failure. It doesn’t drive or dominate me nearly as much as it used to, but it still shows up.

I already shared with you some highlights of Fr. Jacques Philippe’s recent book Priestly Fatherhood. Perhaps his greatest insight for us all (priests and laity alike) is when he connects our fear of failure with the rift in our childlike trust in God as a fierce and tender Father. God is a Father who will unfailingly provide for our needs. He will never reject or abandon us. But in our woundedness it often doesn’t feel that way! From the very beginning of human history, the evil one has been tirelessly at work to rupture our relationships – with God the Father, with each other, and with ourselves. Shame is the devil’s single greatest weapon. Through the lies of shame, he enticed Adam and Eve to hide from God and to protect themselves from each other.

I see shame as the shadow side of communion. It’s not inherently evil (after all, the devil can’t create!). Shame actually helps us and many other mammals to survive. If they get cut off from their pack, they will die. If we humans are on the verge of a rupture of communion, shame will speak up! Unfortunately, that shame signal is so easily exploited by anyone who would manipulate (the devil being chief among them!). We are created for the purpose of sharing intimately in joyful communion. We are meant to belong and to experience that safe connection with the Father and with each other. Shame blares its alarm whenever there is a threat of rupture. It does indeed feel like a matter of life or death!

The problem is that what initially serves our survival ultimately leads us into a wasteland of isolation and ungodly self-protection. Our survival becomes exhausting! As Fr. Philippe puts it, modern man, no longer looking to God as a Father, is “condemned to success.” There is no room for failure because there is no longer a loving Father there to give us protection, freedom, encouragement, and space to keep learning and growing from our mistakes.

How do you handle it when you fail? Or when others around you fail? Are you both able to go closer to the failure and talk about it? Why or why not?

When I feel like I have failed or am about to fail, I have a tendency power up or withdraw, depending on the situation. Both are ways of distancing my shame from the other person. Both isolate rather than heal and repair.

If I listen attentively and notice in God’s presence, there are two main messages to my shame. It either warns me against being seen and exposed as a failure, or it warns me that others will flee from me and leave me alone to face it all. When both show up, it can be a challenging push-pull in relationships – inviting others to come closer, and then pushing them back away when they get too close. In both cases, it’s not so much a conscious strategy as an instinctive reaction. In both cases there is an ongoing invitation to trust God the Father and begin maturing as I abide in healthy and meaningful relationships.

Fear of failure was familiar to the twelve apostles. Just think of how they handled the Passion of Jesus. When Peter first heard of it, he swiftly forbade his Lord to speak any further of it – prompting Jesus to respond, “Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23). Nor did Peter have it figured out during Holy Week! He, at least, stays close(ish) to Jesus – rather than running and fleeing like the others. But he denies him three times. When Jesus begins surprising each of them on Easter Sunday, they are downcast, discouraged, and afraid. They were not yet ready to handle the “failure” of the Cross.

If God is not a loving Father who is faithful and true to his promises, then the Cross is indeed both a scandal and utter foolishness. Jesus willingly faced the Cross – though not without sweating blood first and begging the Father for another option! How did he do it? Ultimately, Jesus was secure in his identity as the beloved Son of the Father. He trusted his Father’s promise of Resurrection. The “failure” of the Cross was ultimately a great victory. It was truly “Good” Friday as Jesus crushed the head of the serpent. The very moment in which the evil one grasped at his triumph was a singular moment of human love and trust. It was the moment in which Jesus invested meaning and hope into what otherwise truly would be a hopeless and miserable human existence following the Fall.

Jesus is Lord and Savior and Messiah – not in a way that erases human sin or suffering, but in a way that transforms it. He opens up a healing path for us. When he says to Peter, “Get behind me,” he is not saying “Get out of my sight!” Rather, he is inviting Peter (and us) to take up our Cross and follow him.

For us who are redeemed by his blood and in the process of being restored and sanctified, taking up our Cross and Jesus often means failing and learning, failing and growing, failing and repairing. As Winston Churchill once put it, “Success in not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Will you and I have the courage to fail? Will we allow space for failure – in ourselves, in our families, in our workplaces, and in our church communities? Will we meet failure with both tenderness and truth-telling? In the person of Jesus, we see that God is clearly drawn towards our failure and our littleness. He enters into it, neither shaming us nor excusing us. He helps us to trust and to grow. May we receive that gift and learn to do the same!

Jesus and Restorative Justice

What is justice?

The greatest minds in human history have often pondered this challenging question: Plato in his Republic, Aristotle in his Ethics, Thomas Aquinas in his Summa.  Wise women and men do not pretend to have all the answers, but they stir up our curiosity by inviting us to ask the right questions.

Justice is a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures. In God’s plan, justice is wedded to mercy (Psalm 85:10). He does not desire the sinner to die but to turn back and live (Ezekiel 18:23). He sends his own beloved Son Jesus to seek out and save that which has been lost (Luke 19:10). He does not desire to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). When he acts justly, it is always ultimately with a view to heal and restore the creatures he has made – if we desire it. When he acts mercifully, it is never without an invitation to tell the full truth about the harm.

Think of Adam and Eve in the garden in Genesis 3. In their shame, they hide themselves – as though from an angry tyrant who is going to make them pay. He does bring Fatherly justice – holding them accountable and explaining to them the consequences. But he also promises eventual healing and restoration through “the woman” and her offspring. Adam and Eve are unable, at first, to tell the truth about what they have done. They try to shift the blame – anything to get the attention off the shame they are experiencing. God’s questions are for their good: Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree? God exhibits both justice and mercy because he is a loving Father who ultimately desires our wholeness and our sharing in his glory. He never lies or ignores the truth, but he also does not desire our loss. Rather than make us pay in strict retributive justice, he sends his own beloved Son so that we can receive his mercy.

But there is so much more than a “not guilty” verdict! The Father and Jesus desire our healing, our restoration, and our wholeness! That is the primary motive for the Father asking his Son to die and rise. Jesus proclaims to his disciples that he came so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10). When he starts appearing to people after the resurrection, he brings life, joy, peace, healing, restoration, wholeness, and holiness – so much more than what they had hoped or dreamed!

How damaging it has been for some Christians to think of the death of Jesus only in the sense of paying the price for our sins. Yes, there is justice – God is a loving and truth-telling Father who does not pretend as though our sins never happened. We can only be healed and restored if we take seriously the harm that our sins have caused – the way in which we have ruptured relationships with him, with others, and with ourselves. AND the Father desires restoration, wholeness, and holiness.

Consider Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax collector who has exploited many vulnerable people (Luke 10). Jesus eagerly seeks out Zacchaeus, who is stunned at being desired and delighted in. But Jesus also allows Zacchaeus to name the harm he has caused and work to repair it. Mercy and justice go together.

Consider Jesus and Peter in John 21. Jesus stokes a charcoal fire there on the seashore – fully knowing what he is going to do. Following the miraculous catch of 153 fish, he then invites Peter into a conversation that is simultaneously remembering, truth-telling, and healing. Peter stands once again by a charcoal fire, just like the night before Jesus died – only now Peter is allowed the opportunity to say three times that he loves Jesus. Peter experiences much distress in this experience – as Jesus knows he will. It is not a shaming of Peter, but rather helping Peter journey through and out of the labyrinth of shame as he begins experiencing healing and restoration.

Peter is much humbler in this encounter than at the Last Supper, when he boldly declared he would lay down his life for Jesus. In the Greek text, Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” – using the verb agapein to denote a self-sacrificing love. Peter responds (truthfully this time) that he loves him with philein – a brotherly love. Jesus foretells the eventual day when Peter will indeed love him so greatly as to lay down his life. For now, he simply invites Peter, “Follow me.” When we read the Acts of the Apostles, we see the restoration and transformation of Peter taking ever fuller effect. The risen glory of Jesus begins shining in and through him.

Repair and restoration take time. But they include a safe space in which both the one who has harmed and the one who was harmed can be heard, can tell the truth about what has happened, and can seek so much more than simply making someone pay.

I have friends who desire this kind of reform in our criminal justice system – which we all know to be broken and badly in need of repair! I am not an expert in those areas, but I hope we begin asking more of the right questions! Both Scripture and our Catholic Tradition have so much more to offer than a justice that only thinks about retribution.

As a priest, I am especially interested in how restorative justice can take root in our marriages, our families, and our church institutions. Too often, when serious harm has happened, we do not use our God-given creativity to open up a safe and healing forum in which all sides can tell the truth about the harm and seek full restoration for all who have been impacted.

Our families of origin and our church families have often failed in this area – especially when there has been sexual harm. Most people I know feel even more shame and awkwardness talking about sexuality – even though it is one of God’s most glorious gifts to us. Consequently, those who have been harmed sexually – whether by someone working for the church or by someone else – often find that neither their family of origin nor their church family is a safe haven to bring their story. I can think of more than a dozen individuals I know personally who suffered even greater betrayal because their story was not received with care.  Simultaneously, our society currently offers no path of redemption or restoration for those who have perpetrated sexual harm – they are branded as permanent outcasts beyond the reach of mercy.

Our just and merciful Father says otherwise – he desires healing and restoration for all who will receive it. As with Adam, Eve, Zaccheaus, the Samaritan woman at the well, or Peter, such restoration is only possible if we are willing to be truth-tellers – both about the harm done to us and about the harm we have done to self and others. Jesus will invite us to follow him on a healing path that includes (sometimes awkward or messy) repair. We will die and rise with him as we come to full maturity in him. In the end, if we welcome this full encounter with his love and truth, his righteousness will shine in us.

Paschal Triduum

We will soon celebrate the Paschal Triduum. We will enter the holiest three days of the year. We will remember the dramatic story in which Jesus redeemed and renewed us.

“Paschal” is another word for Passover. That connection is lost when we use the common English word “Easter.” On Resurrection Sunday, my Spanish-speaking parishioners will say to me, “¡Feliz Pascua!” which literally means “Happy Passover!”

For us Christians, the Passover observance has been forever changed by Jesus. No longer do we spread the blood of a slaughtered lamb on the doorposts and lintels of our homes. Jesus offers himself as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He willingly becomes the lamb, once slain, who now lives, never to die again. His dying and rising are one single offering to the Father. They are now, for us, one single celebration.

In terms of calendar time, the Triduum spans three days, beginning the evening of Holy Thursday and concluding the evening of Resurrection Sunday. However, it remains one single event, a seamless moment in time.

Scripture scholars distinguish chronos and kairos, two Greek words for “time.” Chronological time marches along with steady precision, and with utter disregard for our lived human experience. Sometimes time can’t move quickly enough, as on a Friday afternoon when students and employees stare at the sluggish clock. At other times the hours, weeks, or even years seem to be racing past us. By contrast, there are kairos moments within the passage of time. Whether such a moment lasts a few hours or a few months, we remember it as one significant event or era. The Sacred Triduum is THE kairos event of human history.

For many of the disciples, it was largely a trauma event. They abruptly lost their Lord, and found themselves falling away from him. Within moments, they experienced dread, doubt, confusion, betrayal, loss, guilt, and shame. Trauma has its own sense of timelessness. When we feel powerless, it seems like the anguish will never end.

Jesus transforms our human experience. He willingly enters the depths of human drama and human trauma, conquering every single moment with perfect love.

For some of you, “Triduum” is a new word and a new concept. Others among you have been observing it liturgically for decades. Either way, I invite you to gaze and ponder afresh what transpired during those three days. This three-day event is willed by God to become the very heart of every human story.

DAY ONE

Remember that in Jewish tradition, the new day begins at sunset. Therefore, Day One of the Triduum includes Jesus’ suffering, dying and burial. He initiates this new Passover event by sharing a meal with his disciples. They spend much of the meal debating who among them is the greatest. He declares the bread and wine to be his own flesh and blood and commands them to commemorate this offering. He prays to his Father in the garden. He watches his friends abandon him as he faces arrest, trial, torture, mocking, and crucifixion. His physical torment alone is enough to move human hearts to repentance. But his emotional and spiritual suffering were so much more intense. He willingly takes on our own infirmities, freely entering every traumatizing human experience: abandonment, rejection, the violation of his body, shaming comments, and a felt powerlessness. His cry to his Father gives voice to every human heart that ever has or ever will endure such experiences: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But unlike each of us, Jesus remains faithful and true. He surrenders in trust; he holds out hope; he loves to the end. Day One concludes with his burial and the sealing of the tomb, just in time for the Sabbath.

DAY TWO

Day Two is so easily forgotten by Christians. Jesus’ body remains in the tomb on a Sabbath Day like no other.

Imagine what Holy Saturday was like for the various followers of Jesus. Many had abandoned him or denied him. Imagine the shame they felt! The gospels don’t specify what Peter and the others were up to on this day, but we know that by Sunday most of them were on voluntary lockdown, cowering in the cenacle.

Most of them had their messianic hopes crushed. Despite Jesus’ miracles, parables, and constant proclamation of the Kingdom of God, each follower continued to clutch a more tangible kind of salvation – deliverance from the Romans or restoring the Kingdom of Israel.

Others, like Mary Magdalene, were actively seeking him, like the beloved in the Song of Songs, going out into the night and earnestly searching after the one her heart loves. Desiring and not possessing is an agony like no other – the agony of Hope.

There is also the Hope of Mary, Jesus’ own mother, who had spent thirty years with him, had stood with him at the foot of the Cross, and had always pondered his words and events in her heart. She knew his promises better than anyone.  As at the Annunciation, as at Bethlehem, as during the flight into Egypt, as when seeking and finding Jesus in the Temple, Mary believed that God was ushering in a new and greater human experience. But she couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like. She persevered in Hope. Scripture doesn’t tell us about what it was like when Mary encountered the Risen Jesus, following the agonizing Hope of Day Two. But we can imagine the surprise and the joy.

In Catholic life, each Saturday is a day of devotional remembrance of Mary. We forget that it is her day because Holy Saturday is the day on which she persevered in Hope.

DAY THREE

Jesus rises on the Third Day, during the night preceding the dawn of Resurrection Sunday. No other human being directly witnesses his Resurrection, but the encounters explode, like kernels of corn beginning to pop – at first one by one, and then rapid fire. In every encounter, the Risen Jesus catches them by surprise, and fills their hearts with unimaginable joy. Their narrow and preconceived ideas about the messiah are shattered against the event of his dying and rising. He helps them to understand how everything in the Law and Prophets – indeed everything about our human story – points to this new Passover. This event of his dying and rising (and the agonizing wait in between) is what gives meaning and purpose to your story and mine.

Even still, you and I have a tendency to bypass the Paschal Mystery. Resurrection sounds nice, but what about fully entering with Jesus into suffering, dying, and an agonizing wait at the tomb? Like the characters in the Bible, we prefer perfectionistic rule-following, secular political solutions, or to the old standbys of pleasure, prestige, and power.

This Holy Week, may we allow our minds and hearts to be reawakened to the Faith, Hope, and Love that the Sacred Triduum offers us.

When Hope Hurts

As followers of Jesus, we are people of Hope – especially during Holy Week and Easter.

This year we will experience a Holy Week like no other – gathering the family around our tablets and TVs to view the live stream of the holiest liturgies of the year.

I think back to the middle of March – which now feels like ancient history – and remember how I wept and sobbed over the cancellation of public Masses. The part that was the most painful for me was when it fully dawned on me that our faith communities would not be gathering together for Holy Week and Easter. Having had time to process my grief, I am now grateful that we’re doing our moral duty and serving the common good by joining in the shared effort of social distancing. I’m grateful for all the creativity and innovation that has opened up new opportunities. I’m getting accustomed to Mass on facebook live and Zoom meetings. But let’s face the facts: it’s still hard.

Since the middle of March, there have been far greater hardships for many than the temporary disruption of prayer gatherings and public Masses. Some find their entire livelihood in grave peril; others are under enormous daily stress; many others have died of COVID-19 or lost a loved one.

All of us have felt our daily lives turned upside down. Almost everyone I know seems to be experiencing a significant spike in anxiety or a resurgence of unwanted behaviors. So much is uncertain and unknown; so much can change so quickly. We trust God, but it’s incredibly hard at times to keep believing that it’s somehow all going to be blessed by God as part of his greater plan.

Hope is hard. The Christian virtue of Hope is not rosy optimism; it’s not a feel-good pretending like everything is just swell. Hope involves longing and desiring, watching and waiting. Hope stretches our human hearts far beyond what feels easy or comfortable. Indeed, keeping Hope alive in our heart can be painful. It’s so much easier to try to avoid, it, numb it, or even kill it – choosing instead a path of self-soothing or self-reliance. But we cannot save ourselves.

Holy Week is a time of Hope. The death and resurrection of Jesus, his Paschal Mystery, constitutes THE human story. Without Jesus dying and rising, our human existence becomes empty, fruitless, and meaningless. On the contrary, as we allow ourselves to be plunged into those saving events, we are brought to new and more abundant life.

In the “in between” of that transformation stands the virtue of Hope, like a brave soldier standing in the breach. It can be far more agonizing than we may realize. It’s quite possible that only a few Christians these days are truly steeped in Hope.

Hope is the virtue of Holy Saturday – a day that is easily overlooked. Many are bustling about preparing for Easter; others are pre-binging on food or Netflix or some other pleasure. The invitation of Holy Mother Church – rarely accepted – is to engage in fasting and silence and prayer as best we can, to continue keeping our vigil at the Tomb of Christ, watching and waiting in Hope.

Think of the various characters in the Gospels and imagine what their experience of Holy Saturday was like. Think of Peter and the other apostles, having suddenly lost their Lord and their friend Jesus – and under the shameful circumstances of having abandoned him or denied him. Jesus had recently given a glimpse of glory to Peter atop Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration. Maybe that remembered experience emitted some faint glimmer of Hope amidst his overwhelming feelings of grief and disillusionment, fear and doubt, guilt and shame.

Think of Mary Magdalene and the other faithful women, holding Jesus in their hearts, continuing to love him even when it hurt so much. Their instinctive and intuitive Hope drew them to the tomb on Easter morning, even if they didn’t understand what was happening in their hearts.

Think of Jesus’ own mother Mary, who had borne him in her womb, nursed him, taught him to walk, taught him to read the Scriptures, taught him to pray, and so much more. Over the course of 33 years, she was more intimately close to him and held more conversations with Him than any other human being. Scripture does not record these, but Luke does tell us more than once that Mary kept pondering these mysteries in her heart. She is perhaps the one person who was not entirely surprised at his Resurrection.

But even for Mary – nay, especially for Mary – there was that agonizing in-between moment of Hope between the first day of Good Friday and the third day of Resurrection. If the experience was anything like the previous patterns (the birth of Jesus, the Flight into Egypt, the Presentation in the Temple), she knew and believed God’s promises, but did not know how those promises would be fulfilled.

That is what is so hard about Hope. It is an invitation to plunge into the depths of Jesus’ suffering – which involved far more than physical torments. He freely chose to dive into the depths of our fallen human experience – including the isolation, the loneliness, the fear, the shame, the rejection, and the abandonment that so many of us experience. When he cries out “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” He is crying out with and for each of us from the depths of our hearts – places we are often not willing to go ourselves, because they hurt so much. Jesus allows himself to feel the pain of rupture from God and rupture from neighbor that is part of the story for each of us who are fallen.

Then it’s our turn. Like the Virgin Mary, like Mary Magdelene, like so many of the other disciples, we are invited to keep vigil at his Tomb. We are invited to keep believing his promises – even when it seems impossible anything will ever change. For each of those followers, Easter morning was a wonderful surprise. The risen Jesus brought them joy in a way they had never imagined possible.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, Catholics show up in large numbers for Good Friday, and are often moved to tears at the torments Jesus endured on the Cross. This year, only the priest celebrant will get to kiss the Cross.

During “normal” Holy Weeks, most Catholics give little thought to the experience of Holy Saturday. This year, we all have an extended Holy Saturday opportunity. We have been given a share in Jesus’ suffering and death. In the form of all this unrest and all these unknowns, we have an opportunity to share in the same disorienting and agonizing experience of those early disciples on that first Holy Saturday. Like most of them, we do not know how long it will last, whether it will get better, or how it will get better. We surrender in Hope; we wait in Hope, even when it hurts.

We are free to choose. We can plunge fully into the deep waters of Hope. Or we can keep popping up for air. There are any number of ways we can do that. Some turn to the false soothing of food or alcohol or pornography. Others minimize or deny, pretending like it’s not really that hard (thus distancing themselves from genuine Hope). Still others crack a joke or enter into fault-finding and peevishness – anything that will distract us from the present agony of abiding at the Tomb in Hope.

These are normal ways of avoiding – and they make sense. We all do at least some of them. The truth is that tt is terrifying to be under water for a long period of time! For many of us, it feels like it will be too much or too long. Indeed, that is the whole point of being plunged into the waters of Baptism – we actually die with Christ!

We Catholics think often of Good Friday and of suffering with Jesus. This year, I invite each of us to think especially of Holy Saturday, and give ourselves permission to experience the full depth and breadth and length of Christian Hope. It is not for the faint of heart! If we allow it, it will grow and crescendo into an earthquake that will finally break open the cave of our heart; it will roll away the stone so that we, too, can be surprised by the joy of the Risen Jesus.

The Gift of Tears

Most of us dread the shedding of tears – particularly in front of other people. There are many reasons why we hold back. We don’t want to feel weak or vulnerable. We fear rejection. We fear losing control, perhaps even fear that if we start sobbing, we will never stop. Whether we realize it or not, we probably learned these lessons from word or example in family life. Whether spoken or unspoken, it was against the rules. The shedding of tears comes so spontaneously and naturally to little children. Then, rather than being guided and directed and nurtured, it comes to be seen as a threat.

I have come to learn that tears can be a precious gift from God.

I am by no means the first to make this observation. Many authors in contemporary charismatic circles talk about “the gift of tears” as a charism (a “spiritual gift” of the Holy Spirit along the lines of tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, etc.). True, there are individuals who experience weeping as an outward manifestation of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. This was all the rage in sixteenth-century Spain – to the point that authentic mystics like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, or Ignatius of Loyola had to warn against the faking of tears as a false expression of piety, even showing off. That risk is still there for some today, but I much more frequently find a false toughness that holds back tears.

More commonly over the centuries, tears are an expression of repentance and conversion, opening us up to love God and neighbor with fuller freedom. Examples abound in Scripture. King David weeps over his sins (Psalm 51). The prophet Jeremiah allows his eyes to stream day and night over the great ruination which overwhelms God’s people (Jeremiah 14). Nehemiah’s tears over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem move the heart of the Persian King Artaxerxes. This pagan ruler is so touched with empathy that he sends Nehemiah with full funding and an armed force to go to Jerusalem to fight and rebuild (Nehemiah 1-2).

In the New Testament there is the marvelous story of Saint Peter. The very moment he denies Jesus a third time, Peter experiences a gaze of mercy from him (Luke 22). The Lord turns to look upon him with full knowledge AND full love. Peter knows that he is known and knows that he is loved. He goes out and weeps bitterly. According to many Christian legends and stories, it was by no means the last time Peter would weep. His tears went on to captivate the imagination and heart of Christian mystics and artists for centuries.

What a journey of lifelong conversion Peter undergoes! From the beginning he is drawn to follow the Lord Jesus. He leaves his nets behind. He believes from day one, and never falters in his faith, even when he repeatedly falters in loving Jesus. He denies Jesus; his actions show us time and again that his understanding is only partial. The growth is prolonged and slow. Even after the Resurrection, when Peter joins Jesus on the seashore, there is still much conversion needed. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him – offering three renewals of love to the man who three times denied him. But there is more in the Greek. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with agape – that self-emptying, sacrificial love that Jesus showed on the Cross. Peter answers that he loves Jesus with philia – brotherly love.  Jesus is inviting Peter to confess the full truth of his present condition. There is almost a sense of playfulness about it, certainly gentleness. Jesus is not disappointed in Peter; rather, he is encouraging him, inviting him farther and farther along the path of conversion. He doesn’t expect Peter to get there all at once, yet he speaks the truth to him with love. He encourages Peter that he will one day be strong enough to lay down his life with a full agape love. For now, Peter is not yet ready, and that is okay. Jesus just invites him “Follow me.” The rest will come in due time.

I am guessing Peter had tears in his eyes at that moment as well. It is easy to imagine him shedding tears at all the key moments of his conversion. The mercy of God unleashes our tears, and our tears unleash his mercy. It’s a wonderful, virtuous cycle.

The Desert Fathers, those mighty monks of the early centuries, often discussed tears as a marvelous gift of God. They saw tears as a powerful remedy against the evil spirit of acedia – one of the subtlest and most formidable foes we will ever face.

[If you are unfamiliar with the sin of acedia I highly recommend reading Fr. Jean-Charles Nault’s book The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times]

The deadly sin of acedia is difficult to translate. Calling it “sloth” or “laziness” can be misleading. That is just one of many possible manifestations. Indeed, in today’s world this sin is more likely to manifest itself in boredom or busyness or burnout. Our restless hearts resist staying present in the moment, seeking any alternative than abiding in God’s presence. How sad indeed to be repulsed by divine goodness and prefer our self-created madhouse of busyness and comforts, even when that madhouse becomes an unbearable hell for us. Yet how common to our human experience!

Literally, acedia is from the Greek a + kēdos – “not caring” or “not feeling.” John Climacus describes its first steps: a numbness in our soul, a forgetfulness of heavenly promises, and an aversion to the present moment as to a great burden. How many today, I wonder, are in the throes this spiritual sickness?

The Desert Fathers fought it. Their era was very much like our own. They saw the decline and fall of a once great civilization. The Greeks and Romans, plunged into pleasures, had worn themselves out. The early monks discovered that tears are a saving remedy for acedia.

First of all, our tears allow us –  like King David and like Saint Peter – to be truly humble and recognize our need for a savior. In our tears, we confess that we cannot save ourselves. Like a child in the presence of its parents, we are crying out in our need. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, and delights in those who are willing to become like little children.

Secondly, tears unthaw our frozen hearts and allow us to feel again. They lead us out of our numbness and free us to be vulnerable and dependent. Fr. Nault, in his book, offers the image of our falling tears carving out a notch in our stony hearts – a notch through which God’s mercy can pour into our sin-sick soul.

Evagrius was one of the wisest of those desert monks. We can close with his words about the gift of tears aiding us in our spiritual struggles: “Sadness is hard to bear and acedia is hard to resist – but tears shed in God’s presence are stronger than both.”

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