Last year was rough. Devastating blow after disappointment after resentment after failure piled up. Nothing seemed to be going well where I wanted it to the most, and it’s spilling over into 2017 too. My most common prayer was and continues to be, “God, can you throw me a bone over here?”
Thank God my Father knows always when and where to give me encouragement just as I need it. When visiting a good friend in last Lent, I was taken by a large wooden cross in the back corner of her parish in Phoenix, Arizona. The two beams were scattered nails that pierced through patches of black paper. In a basket were more scraps of black paper and pencils. Oh, we’re nailing our failings to the cross, I thought. I pondered of all my agony, all my shame, all my devastation, and wrote it down. I stuck my pain to the cross.
The physicality of that brief, seemingly insignificant moment has stuck with me throughout last year and into this Lent. Now, as we enter into the holiest days of the liturgical calendar this year, I’m asking myself yet again, where do I want to be during the Lord’s agony on the cross?
Do I want to be where Judas was, giving up his pain for a fleeting earthly pleasure? Do I want to be where Peter was, denying and running away from his pain? Or do I want to be where I can be closest to Jesus, standing at the foot of the cross as Mary and John did?
Entering into our pain is not an easy task. It’s easier to settle for something else and fool ourselves into thinking it’s what we really desire. It’s easier to deny we wanted something and run away from our desire. Standing our ground, admitting we’re disappointed, frustrated, jealous, resentful, devastated, etc., and entering into our pain is not an easy task.
First, when we enter into our pain, people may think we’re insane.
Let’s look at Hannah, mother of Samuel, prophet extraordinaire of the Old Testament who’s so cool he has two whole books named after him. Hannah, however, had her fair share of trial before birthing him.
In her bitterness she prayed to the LORD, weeping freely…As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth, for Hannah was praying silently; though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard.
Eli, thinking she was drunk, said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up from your wine!”
“No, my lord!” Hannah answered. “I am an unhappy woman. I have had neither wine nor liquor; I was only pouring out my heart to the LORD.“
“Lady, are you drunk!?”
“Ah, nope. Just pouring my heart out. Don’t worry. Nothing to see here. Move along, concerned citizen. I’m just going to go ahead and weep like a drunk person again. Thanks!”
Yeah, entering into our pain so deeply that people think we’re crazy… That sounds pleasant. It’s much easier to say I’m drunk, on my period, or in a glass case of emotion than to admit I’m hurting.
Second, when we enter into our pain, we must admit we need help and cannot rely on ourselves anymore.
Yeah, I’m not good at that. I’m am an independent, autonomous, self-motivated, I-can-fend-and-take-care-of-myself sort of lady.
Then Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude had a one-liner that has challenged my default of spiritual self-reliance:
“What is the use of praying if at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?”
– Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
Zing! So, my confidence in the Lord is zilch. Thanks for that, Merton. His poignant words have led me to variety of other books, all about relying on God.
(If you’re looking for good ones, check out He Leadth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek, The Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I Believe in Love by Fr. Jean C. J. d’Elbée, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture by Scott Hahn or the very book that started it all, Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton.)
I’m still quite horrible at reliance on my Father, even after a year of poor practice. Yet, I have an openness to relying on God more than myself that I didn’t have a year ago precisely because I have entered into my pain and realized I cannot heal myself. Which brings me to…
Third, when we enter into our pain, we realize more fully how completely helpless we are.
As I’ve written about extensively, little in life is more humbling than disease, especially when you’re usually on the end where you know everything, are in control, and providing assurance. Disease makes us uncertain, afraid, and feel disconnected from our body and our very being. And as much as I have tried to fix myself, heal myself, and control everything that’s going on, I’ve realized time and time again that I cannot do everything myself.
And that’s painful.
It’s painful to realize I’m helpless. It’s painful to realize in a physical way that my body is going to fail me. It’s painful to realize that I’m broken. It’s painful to realize that my body will not be completely healed and that I’ll have to live with a chronic disease. And it’s most painful to realize that God might want to keep it that way.
Even though the Gospel is full of stories of healings, it’s also peppered with stories where people aren’t healed like in Matthew 13:58. Matthew cites the people’s lack of faith or distrust as the reason they could not be healed, but I’ve seen people of great faith in my career such as this wonderful woman who haven’t been healed. I just don’t buy that the only reason Jesus did not perform a miraculous healing is because of my lack of faith. Jesus does a lot of things despite my weaknesses. So why not heal me?
I don’t think any answer on earth will ever suffice, but this comes close:
“Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” But he did not heal all the sick. His healings were signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover. On the cross Christ took upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the “sin of the world,” of which illness is only a consequence.
Jesus did not heal all the sick because the physical healing of our bodies is only a sign, a hint, a foretaste, of the radical healing He can perform on our souls. But how can we be healed in the radical way Jesus proclaims?
When we realize our own helplessness, we can look to Jesus in His time of complete helplessness on the cross. He could do anything He wanted as the passerby jeered at Him, but He willingly chose helplessness, embarrassment, pain, and abandonment. We can see when we stand at the foot of the cross and stand in our pain that He too understands all the pains we have because He has felt them too.
As St. Paul wrote to the Hebrews in one of my favorite passages:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.
We do not need to look at Jesus as an idol who never ached but as our companion who knows our every ache.
Fourth, when we enter into our pain, we enter into a deeper relationship with Christ.
Sharing our pain with someone else covers the two deepest levels of intimacy. When we share our pain with others, we are both admitting our fears, failures, and weaknesses as well as admitting our legitimate needs whether that is the comfort of a hug, kind words, or whatever else.
The difference between the two, however, is that in Maslow’s model we go from the bottom to the top, and in Kelly’s model, we go from the top to the bottom. When it comes to our needs, we must have our physiological needs like food, water, breathing, etc. met before we can meet our self-actualization needs. But when it comes to our need for intimacy, we desperately want the level of intimacy where we are able to discuss our legitimate needs and fears, failures, and weaknesses, but we often stick to more comfortable levels of intimacy by speaking in cliches and facts. Why?
Because entering into our pain is difficult enough, but entering into pain of another person is even more difficult, uncomfortable, and vicariously painful.
Can you imagine being Jesus’s mother at the foot of the cross? I cannot even begin to fathom the pain. I’m vicariously hurt when my nephews hurt themselves and start to cry. Heck, I’m such a sucker of an aunt that I even vicariously hurt when I need to put my nephews on timeout for being naughty. I cannot fathom the amount of secondary pain that comes from watching your Son be tortured, mocked, and crucified in front of your very eyes. And then to stand there, at His feet, and be by His side for hours as He lives through this pain? Hot dang, Mary! How’d you do it!?
Mary had a lifetime of preparation. She had heard when presenting Jesus to Simeon that “and you yourself a sword will pierce” (Luke 2:35) and knew being the mother of Jesus would be painful. But she continually said “yes” to whatever God wanted, even if His will made no sense and involved watching the Person she loved the most suffer and die in front of her eyes.
Yet out of love, she would not leave Him to be in agony alone. Instead, she allowed herself to feel His every ache and opened her heart to the pain of loss, the pain of feeling abandoned, the pain of suffering, the pain of mockery, and whatever other horrible pains she felt at the foot of that cross.
Standing in that pain with one another is what Jesus calls us to. On the cross, He gave His mother to his beloved disciple John as a beautiful model of how we must give ourselves to each other (John 19:26-27).
Jesus came to earth to unite us to each other, and we are the ones who run away from each other. We’re the ones who see a dark side of our friends, family, spouse, etc. and decide that we’ve had enough. Jesus saw the dark side of his apostles and still offered them opportunities to repent. Jesus sees the darkest sides of our being and still offers His infinite mercy. It’s us who doubt that merciful love and never approach the throne of grace, the foot of the cross.
Yet, there is no greater freedom than finding yourself at the foot of the cross, in the place where you are afraid to wait, where uncertainty and fear abound. That place is holy. It can be utterly humiliating, but as Fulton Sheen once wrote, “never is there any humiliation without a hint of glory.”
And what is the glory of the cross? Compassion. And what does compassion mean? From the Latin com meaning “with” and pati meaning “to suffer,” it means to suffer with. The cross calls us back into relationship with God and one another, but if we continually run away from those painful spots in our lives and the lives of us, we’ll continually miss our opportunity to learn compassion. Without compassion, our relationships suffer and we are unable to reach the deepest levels of intimacy with our loved ones.
As vulnerability research Brené Brown wrote in her latest book:
“What do these people with strong relationships, parents with deep connections to their children, teachers nurturing creativity and learning, clergy walking with people through faith, and trusted leaders have in common? The answer was clear: They recognize the power of emotion and they’re not afraid to lean in to discomfort.”
– Brené Brown, Rising Strong
By leaning into discomfort, by standing in our pain and in the pain of others, we are going to be able to have more joyful, fulfilling, and loving relationships with one another. St. Paul calls every Christian to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), and we cannot have one without the other.
This is why I want to be standing at the foot of the cross during this Holy Week. I want to feel the depths of the pain of my Savior so I can be open to feeling those very aches in my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Too, those who stood with Christ in His hours of agony were the first to see His risen glory. I do not think it is coincidence that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (wife of Clopas, a disciple) were the first recorded person in the Gospels to have seen the risen Christ, and they was at the foot of his cross (Matthew 28:9, John 19:25). John outraced Peter to the tomb, and he was at the foot of the cross (John 20:3, John 19:25).
Well, what about His mother, you might ask? She was there too! Since St. Ambrose in the 4th century, tradition states Jesus first appeared to His mother Mary before anyone else, though this is not recorded in the Gospels. I have no doubt Jesus would want to see His mother before anyone else. Her faith had wavered the least, she had stood by His side the longest, and He loved her dearly.
Already we see the proof of Fulton Sheen’s words! Those who allowed themselves to most fully feel the humiliation of Christ’s suffering and death were the first to witness His glory.
So, in the drama of Holy Week when all the events of the Passion of Christ are recalled, I echo the words of St. Pope John Paul II in his Gospel on Palm Sunday, 2002:
Today we are contemporaries of the Lord and, like the multitude in Jerusalem, like the disciples and the women, we are called to decide if we are to be with him, or flee, or just be spectators at his death. Every year in Holy Week the curtain rises once again on the great scene in which the definitive drama is decided, not only for one generation, but for all humanity and for each one.”
– St. John Paul II
Where are you going to stand this Holy Week?
(P.S., I am in love with the Stabat Mater, a 13th century hymn which portrays her suffering at the foot of the cross:
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.
Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.
Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?
For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:
She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.
O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:
Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.
Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:
Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.
Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:
By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.
Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;
Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.
Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;
Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.
Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory;
While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.