Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Praise of Lament

(We Christians are an enigmatic bunch.)

Enter “Benedictine” or “Rule” into an internet search engine and you will find quite an array of topics to which creative authors have applied the guidance of Saint Benedict:  business leadership, parenting, sports, everyday life in “the world,” and so on.  A quick scan might make it seem as if he had something to say about everything.  While it is true that the wisdom of the Rule is timeless and to some degree portable, it won’t help you with your short game or earn you an “I ♥ MY BOSS” coffee mug.  And here’s a tip:  Don’t go looking to it for instructions on how to observe Holy Week, either; you won’t find any. 

If you consider the liturgical life of Benedict’s monasteries, however, you will find quite a bounty of material for marking the season.  One of the common practices observed by Benedictines—and other traditions, as well—is the chanting of Lamentations during the Triduum (pronounced “trih-doo-um”; literally, “three days”) leading up to Easter.  It is stunningly affecting:  A lone cantor standing before the assembly, singing clear and solemn.  Not rushed (one cannot hurry grief), no accompaniment—just a single, stark lament raised up for all who bow down in prayer. 

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!  How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations.” 

It is like the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Repent!”  “Prepare!”  In tone and meter, it reminds me of the keening of my Irish ancestors, a ritual cry of grief on behalf of all the suffering.  The Lamentations are a haunting report of desolation, as rightly they should be.

If much of the focus of our Lenten disciplines has up to now been on personal repentance and conversion, then the corporate lament of these three days ought to remind us that our individual journeys can never be divorced from that of one’s sisters and brothers.  All we like sheep have gone astray.  The whole creation groans as it yearns to be made new in Christ.

The witness of scripture casts us corporately into a great mystery, an inquisition before the gates of heaven:  Why was it that Christ had to die on the cross?  How could a loving God allow such a merciless fate to befall a blameless Son?  What part do our iniquities take in this passion play?

I recently heard a pastor assert from the pulpit that the sacrifice of Jesus was not an atonement for our sins because to require the shedding of blood for our repair would make God into some sort of monster; rather, he suggested, Christ died to model for us in a dramatic manner the way of self-giving to which all Christians are called.  While such an explanation might make the crucifixion more palatable to our contemporary sensibilities, it fails to take seriously either the testimony of scripture or the church’s tradition or the bald reality of sin and its consequences. 

The cross is hard stuff.  It is a stumbling block to those who look for signs that God will always intervene for the Righteous and it is foolishness to those who place mere human wisdom in a paramount place of their religion. [i]  But for those who believe…well…it is called the Paschal Mystery for a reason.  We embrace Christ’s act as our salvation, even when we do not fully comprehend why it must be so.

We will save a wider exploration of Christ as Savior in the Rule for another time.  (That’s a full meal, and I’m only serving side dishes today.)  Let this reminder suffice for now:  Benedict was not a systematic theologian.  He was not given to lengthy—or even brief—excurses on the philosophical underpinnings of the monastic life.  Rather, he followed that ubiquitous modern day advice: “Just do it.”

This is not to say that the Rule gives us no insights into the path we travel with Jesus toward Jerusalem.  For instance,
·         Benedict begins the liturgical journey with Easter, unlike his predecessor, the Rule of the Master, which begins with Lent.[ii]  For him, the most important consideration seems to be Christ’s triumph rather than our feeble striving.  It is as if he is saying to us, “The hard things are real and will be ever present,[iii] but there is glory awaiting us when we follow Christ (RB Prol. 50). Persevere in joy!”

·         Our willful disobedience has separated us from God (Prol. 2), but the work of conversion through obedience and our abiding trust in the mercy of God (4.74) will bring us home again.

·         Lenten tears of compunction (49.4) will moisten our cheeks, but we should never allow them to wash away our joy in the Resurrection (v. 7).

·         The valley of the shadow of death is not our final destination nor do we sojourn through it alone.  Christ is our guide and he will bring us all together to everlasting life (72.11).

Monasteries—whether of the traditional, residential sort or of the dispersed variety, such as Saint Brigid’s—are faith communities in which the Cross stands plainly at the center.  We take the lament of Jeremiah and the cry of John the Baptist (sometimes said to be the prototype of the monk) with utter seriousness in season and out.  We are always and everywhere called to heed the Divine invitation: “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” (Ps 95:8; Prol. 10)[iv]

Monastics are not, therefore, enamored of a morbid fatalism or an unhealthy fascination with humanity’s penchant for sin; on the contrary, Benedictines are on the whole some of the most joyful people one would ever hope to meet.  It is precisely because we take sin seriously that we must take hope seriously; otherwise, the entire Christian endeavor is for naught.  The cross would have the last word and the tomb would gloat.

I encourage you to spend some lectio time with Lamentations during these Three Days.  Mourn that the world—that we—too often turn away from the God who made us and who loves us.  Raise up a cry for compassion to the One who promised to hear.  And look forward with every fiber of your believing being to the fulfillment of the promise of the Cross.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

Grace be with you,

[i] 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
[ii] Terrence Kardong on RB 41.1:  “As in RB 48.23 [and 10.1], where he also begins with Easter, he shows that the festal season is fundamental to his thinking, with fasting an important but secondary complement.  For the Master, however, fasting is mentioned first (RM 28.3), and Lent is the first element considered in the horarium (RM 50.8ff).”  Benedict’s Rule (Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1996) p. 333.

[iii] Benedict goes so far as to say that when discerning a candidate’s vocation, “The concern must be whether the novice truly seeks God and whether that person shows eagerness for the Work of God, for obedience and for trials.” (RB 587)

[iv] And this beautiful word of truth:  “What, dear brothers and sisters, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?” (Prol. 19)


  1. Wow! Wonderful. Thank you for the thoughts.

  2. Thank you, Mary! Your "side dishes" are full with thought-provoking challenges! Blessings to you and all of our community Benedictines on this Good Friday!


  3. Amada. Sou pastor Metodista na Amazônia. Sou metodista e trabalho com o movimento monasticismo no Brasil. Estamos construindo uma Ordem Evangelica Monástica, aberto a todos os protestantes. Deus te abençoe. Seu blog é maravilhoso. Parabéns. Ore sempre por mim. Veja meu blog: