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For these things I weep... Lamentation for a Suffering Church: A Reflection for Ash Wednesday

Charles Taker, Associate

The last few weeks have been difficult for me. At our Montréal associates and sisters gathering in January, we had a very frank and honest discussion about sexual abuse in the Church. It left me troubled. Troubled, because, as a Church, we have been derelict in our duty to care for those entrusted to us. Even more troubled that some of us have done great harm. Lives have been broken; either through acts of commission or equally damaging acts of omission, cover-up, and lies. I did not leave my meeting feeling hopeful. Neither did I feel very confident that Church leadership was serious about implementing change or fixing a culture that allowed this to happen. There is a crisis of trust. I too have succumbed to it. I have been praying and reflecting on this ever since.

In Panama, earlier this winter, the Pope warned that the current climate in the Church can lead to a "weariness of hope" that "calls into question the energy, resources, and viability of our mission in this changing and challenging world." "The weariness of hope comes from seeing a Church wounded by sin, which so often failed to hear all those cries that echoed the cry of the Master: 'My God, why have you forsaken me?'”

Our first reading today from the prophet Joel begins “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning…”. That is a call that we hear every year on this first day of Lent. It challenges us at the depth of our being. This year my question is, “Where are you God, why have you forsaken me?” In this time of turmoil, God feels very far away. Even ashes, the very symbol of this day, evoke destruction and loss. The Church is indeed in a time of purgation, it is suffering. Yet, this reading also reminds us of that consistent nature of our God, revealed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures; a God who is “slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing…”

“Blow the trumpet in Zion!” says the prophet, “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber.” As the Church, this is our collective responsibility and it is urgent that we act now. God is calling us communally to action. God is calling us to challenge the status quo. God is calling us to denounce the root causes of this pain and suffering. As Pope Francis stated during his concluding remarks at last month’s Summit on The Protection of Minors in the Church, “The holy and patient, faithful people of God, borne up and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, is the best face of the prophetic Church which puts her Lord at the center in daily giving of herself. It will be precisely this holy people of God to liberate us from the plague of clericalism, which is the fertile ground for all these disgraces.” While it is a hard time, a heavy time, the Church is slowly and painfully being refined as if by fire, and ash is left in the wake, symbolic of our letting go of a culture and practises that were not of God. May the way forward bring us a new culture characterized by responsibility, accountability, and transparency. The prophet Joel reassures us that God is ever present in our suffering; our God indeed weeps with us. "Spare, O Lord, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach, with the nations ruling over them! Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'" Then the Lord was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.” And it is our merciful God who will bring healing and breathe new life into the embers lying among the ashes.

These last few weeks, I have found some degree of solace in the reading of the psalms. There, I have discovered a somewhat new, yet familiar way to give expression to the sense of sadness, desolation, powerlessness and hopelessness that I have been feeling. It is called lament. Lament is a major theme in the Hebrew scriptures. Approximately 70% of psalms are laments; some communal, others individual. Laments have been composed and observed for all manner of calamity throughout many traditions: death, broken relationships, illness or catastrophe. If ever there was a time for lamentation, it is now.

This Lent, I want to make my Lenten prayer a lament for the suffering Church. In fact, I make this lament for the collective “us”, for we are Church. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. We have a collective responsibility to take ownership for what has happened, moving beyond complacency to action. Part of this exercise is expiatory and reparative, while my overarching goal is restorative – to bring about justice, healing, and reconciliation. I invite you to join me this Lent as we make a communal lament. As we begin, let us ask ourselves four questions:

• For what do I weep?

• For what do I yearn?

• Where is my hope?

• How then shall I live?

The practise of lament calls us to name before God those things for which we weep, to petition God for those things for which we yearn, to identify those things that give us hope and ultimately spur us to action. It is a journey from brokenness to wholeness from powerlessness to empowerment and from pretense to authenticity.

The prayer of lament is, as poet and Benedictine Oblate Christine Valters Paintner describes, “first and foremost truth-telling”. Lament, she goes on to say, “is a form of resistance… and puts us in solidarity with those who are suffering and schools us in compassion. Only when we have become familiar with the landscape of our own pain can we then enter into the suffering of another. Lament moves us beyond our own narrow perspectives. In the prayer of lament, we help give voice to the oppressed, to hidden suffering, the suffering in silence that happens because pain takes our language away.” Finally, lament, she says, “is the release of power, God’s power, the power that is the soul-transforming call of repentance.”

My need for lament was prompted by the sex abuse crisis in our Church and the pain and suffering of those who endured untold abuse. But it doesn’t stop there. I yearn for reconciliation, for wholeness, for the return to right relationship. I hope in my God, the God of justice who hears the cry of the poor. May we have the courage this Lent to take our lament from songs of death and desolation to songs of resurrection and praise that we might end this Lenten journey with the confidence to sing our own Exsultet, echoing the mighty song of all God's people!

So, on this Ash Wednesday, as we begin our Lenten journey sprinkled with ash and clothed in sackcloth, let us go out to the desert and join Jesus in the peripheries. Enter the suffering of others, speak truth, be part of the resistance. May your Lenten Journey be transformative and restorative!

 

 

 

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