Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Language of Lament

Loss and grief are part of the human condition.  They are unavoidable experiences.  How do we respond to them as people of faith? 

The Bible acknowledges the reality of pain and suffering.  It is not denied or treated as an illusion.  Neither is it explained (at least, not to my satisfaction!).  It just is.  Religion is about what we do with our suffering: how we integrate our experiences of loss within a larger affirmation of life and love. 

Grieving is a spiritual practice that we work at and that works on us, opening us to the possibility that we can give voice to our loss, without giving it the final word.  It is literally heart breaking work that opens us to a deeper encounter with the divine compassion in which all things are held. This is why Jesus has the audacity to say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”[1]

Commenting on this difficult teaching, Cynthia Bourgeault writes that

“When we mourn . . . we are in state of free-fall, our heart reaching out toward what we have seemingly lost but cannot help loving anyway . . . Mourning is indeed a brutal form of emptiness.  But in this emptiness, if we can remain open, we discover that a mysterious ‘something’ does indeed reach back to comfort us; the tendrils of our grief trailing out into the unknown become intertwined in a greater love that holds all things together.  To mourn is to touch directly the substance of divine compassion.  And just as ice must melt before it can flow, we, too, must become liquid before we can flow into the larger mind.  Tears have been a classic way of doing this.”[2] 

Staying open in the midst of grief, what the psalms refer to as being in the “pit,” is not easy.  The temptation in the pit is to become silent, to close in on ourselves and cut ourselves off from the very connections that can sustain us in the darkness.  There is a saying of the rabbis recorded in the Talmud:  “The deeper the sorrow the less tongue it has.” 

The biblical language of lament that we find in the psalms help us give voice to the unspeakable, and thereby reconnect us with God and with one another. About one-third of the psalms are songs of lament.[3] They reflect the disorientation we feel when things fall apart.  They honestly and poignantly express the feelings of abandonment, isolation, confusion, doubt, and anger that we experience in the “pit.”  Here, at the very heart of the biblical tradition, the psalms allow us to acknowledge the reality of loss and pain before God and one another.

By giving “tongue” to our sorrow, the lament psalms validate and normalize the difficult and sometimes overwhelming feelings that accompany the grief process.  Lament psalms are communal hymns that reduce our sense of isolation and place us in the very human company of all who suffer loss.  They invite us to listen to the anguish of another without judgment or explanations.  They keep us open to the possibility that in the midst of despair, the tendrils of our grief eventually will become intertwined with the divine compassion.

We need the language of lament, even if it seems scandalous.  As William Parker notes,

“We may even be uncomfortable with these prayers.  Yet they are the collective prayers of a people in pain.  They are not magical, however; praying these psalms will not make everything better.  But unless they are spoken, we run the risk of trivializing our relationship with God.  The language of the lament calls upon God by name and expects a response.  It takes a great faith to be so candid.”

“It would be simplistic to suppose that once the lament has been prayed the person’s complaint was immediately answered and life was restored.  We do not know how may weeks, months, or even years passed before the psalmist could utter those words of thanks signaling the end of the lament.  But concluding with a prayer of thanksgiving reflects our faith that God will rescue us and brings us up from the depths.”[4]

Grief is an invitation into the mystery of death and resurrection.  The death of those we love  – as well as other kinds of loss – occasions a dying within us.  As we grieve, we are simultaneously nurturing the coming to life of a new sense of self and of God.  We do not know when that resurrection life will be born.  Its development is often hidden from us.  In the meantime, while darkness seems to be our only friend, we offer our lament to God, we try to stay open, and we wait together. 

[1] Matthew 5:4
[2] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, p. 43
[3] Psalms 13, 22, 42, and 88 are good examples.
[4] William Parker, “Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation”

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