Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Penthos: A Good Friday Homily

While I was on sabbatical last year, I spent a good bit of time studying Christian monasticism, especially the practices of the earliest monks in the deserts of 4th Century Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.  One of the things that struck me about these desert contemplatives was their emphasis upon the importance of grief in the spiritual life. They sought the gift of tears or penthos, a piercing of the heart that opens one to a deeper level of spiritual maturity.  They taught that the cultivation of an openness to grief is crucial to spiritual growth. 

A brother asked an elder, “What should I do?”  And the old man said to him, “We ought always to weep . . . “Let us weep,” Abba Macarius counseled his disciples, “and let tears gush out of our eyes . . .”[1]

We are told that Abba Arsenius “had a hallow in his chest channeled out by the tears which fell from his eyes all his life while he sat at manual work.”[2] He was thought to be an icon of holiness. 

Why this emphasis on tears?  Tears were considered a sign of honest appraisal of the self and the world, of our fragility and mortality.  They counseled weeping as a means of cultivating genuine feeling for the world and opening the heart to being transfigured by compassion.  Tears reconnect us to the world, breaking through the fear and illusion that alienate us from life and from one another.

The early Christian monks knew that tears could help break open the soul, kindling a deeper awareness of one’s vulnerability and fragility, and one’s capacity for intimacy with God and all living beings.  But opening oneself in this way required courage, a willingness to face one’s own fragility as well as the fragility and brokenness of the world.  It meant refusing the temptation to evade the reality of those bonds that connect all beings to each other, and embracing the reality of a shared world.  Weeping, when understood as part of a conscious spiritual practice, had the capacity to flood the soul with an awareness of the intricacy, beauty, and spiritual value of all existence.[3]

Penthos, the gift of tears, is both the doorway into life, and the sign that we are not only alive, but awake.  Tears cleanse the lens of perception so that we can see ourselves and the world honestly.  “In the world of feeling,” writes E. M. Cioran, “tears are the criterion of truth.”[4] 

When we refuse to acknowledge suffering and loss, we close ourselves off from reality.  We lose touch with vital sources of information necessary to respond appropriately, in ways that can bring about healing and restore hope.  We risk becoming indifferent; or, worse, positively cruel.  We can become complicit in the suffering of others, delighting in their misfortune, projecting our denial and fear on to them.  Here, the refusal to suffer becomes an expression of evil. 

In the Passion narrative, the fact that Peter wept bitterly after abandoning Jesus is a sign of hope.  This is penthos, grief that pierces the heart.  Peter acknowledged the truth of his failure, his lack of courage, making repentance possible.   Rather than hardening his heart, Peter wept, and that made all the difference.   Peter’s acceptance of the truth made the acceptance of forgiveness possible.  He could begin again.

Then there are the women:  Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus’ mother, weeping at the foot of the cross, weeping outside the tomb.  There is no denial of the depth of their loss, their shattered hopes.  They grieve their sense of powerlessness to prevent this terrible injustice; their faithfulness seems pointless, but they persevere.  This, too, is penthos, the refusal to sever the bond of relationship however painful it may be.  Later, it will become the source of their power as the apostles to the apostles. 

Jesus, we are told, “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death,” according to The Letter to the Hebrews.[5]  This is true even in the otherwise stoic Gospel of John, where Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus before the Passion narrative, rather than in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In all the Gospels, Jesus’ tears are the supreme act of penthos, an opening of the heart to embrace the suffering of the whole world. 

The penthos of Jesus expresses a compassion that transfigures suffering through the perception of God’s presence and power even in the midst of death.  It is an affirmation of the work of grief in the service of life and love.  The work of grief is not abstract.  It is rooted in particular places:  Bethany, Gethsemane, Jerusalem; and in concrete relationships with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, Peter, James, and John.  Yet, the greater our vulnerability to the particular; the greater our capacity to encompass the universal. 

The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus’ suffering as an act of submission to God whereby he was made perfect, becoming the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.[6]  Here, penthos, the willingness to be touched by the suffering of others and to suffer in solidarity with them, is placed at the very center of the meaning of the crucifixion.  It is not, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed in another context, that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.”[7]  Jesus’ submission to God’s will is reflected not in his suffering per se, but in his compassion, his absolute transparency to God’s self-giving love. 

In this sense, the cross is a symbol of perfection.  Here, Jesus is revealed as God Incarnate, the Center in which all polarities are held in a larger wholeness. In John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.”[8]  Nothing is excluded.  Everything is embraced.  This is the moment of revelation of God’s glory:  the love in which everything is held, nothing is lost; all is judged, all is forgiven. 

The earliest Christians interpreted the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection through the lens of Psalm 22.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the first line of the psalm is placed on the lips of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, invoking the meaning of the entire psalm.  It combines both prayer and praise, suffering and celebration.  

In the psalm, the protagonist experiences suffering at every level of life:  loss of bodily integrity, social ostracism, and abandonment by God.  Surrounded by evildoers who delight in his downfall and mock his dependence upon God, the protagonist is revealed as one of the anawim, the little ones or poor of the land.[9]  But God does “not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” nor does God hide his face from their cries.  God will hear his cry and deliver him.[10]  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of the nations shall worship before him.[11]  Jesus’ death and resurrection, as interpreted by this psalm, is as a call to the world to trust in God’s love and mercy. 

Our salvation, our wholeness, is found in obedience to Jesus, in becoming vulnerable to God as he became vulnerable to God.  The Center, the kingdom of God, is everywhere.  How do we learn to perceive it?  “Weep,” said, Abba Poemen, “truly, there is no other way than this.”[12] 

[1] Quoted in Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 75.
[2] Christie, p. 101.
[3] Christie, p. 77.
[4] Christie, p. 101.
[5] Hebrews 5:7.
[6] Hebrews 5:8-9.
[7] Isaiah 53:10.
[8] John 12:32.
[9] Psalm 22:26.
[10] Psalm 22:24.
[11] Psalm 22:27.
[12] Christie, p. 72.

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