Weeping, Lamentation, and Hope

At the end of his post on praying with the psalms in times of sorrow, Richard Beck articulates (one of the reasons) why I cry at church:

Because, like I said above, I’ve seen how these psalms of praise are sung through tears. How they express hopes and longings as much as certainty and conviction. I’ve seen how these psalms, when paired with tears, are a sort of lament, a deep longing and cry for a place and time when pain shall be no more.

I learned about the psalms of lamentation quite late; it wasn’t until I was in my 30s, I think, that I had them pointed out to me as a distinct genre with distinct conventions that served a distinct purpose in the life of the People of God and in the life of prayer. The lamentation psalms start by lamenting… by wailing to God: my enemies surround me, they mock me, everyone has abandoned me, I am a laughingstock and a disgrace. Sometimes they accuse: And where are you, God? How could you let this happen to me? Why have you abandoned me?

But they end, they always, always end, with an affirmation of faith, trust, and hope in the LORD: But. But you will not let your chosen one be put to shame. I will place my trust in you. You will rescue me, and I will sing your praises.

Richard talks about turning to the psalms of praise in times of grief as “going high”. I don’t experience it as going high, but as digging deep: deep into my soul, deep into the tradition, deep into hope. Our African-American sisters and brothers, especially, have witnessed to and been nourished by this tradition in spirituals and freedom songs:

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome some day.
Deep in my heart,
I do believe
That we shall overcome some day.

That word “hope” is so important. These psalms and songs are the practice of hope. Hope, if we define it as holding to the eventual good outcome of justice and the reign of God, anchors our present situation to an eschatological framework. It therefore and thereby places our current circumstances, however distressing they may be, in the context of the ongoing story of salvation history.[1] It weaves our stories into God’s story. Christian hope is not simply a feeling and it is not the same as optimism: it is a theological virtue that is cultivated and practiced. It is profoundly eschatological, rooted in the deep conviction of God’s justice, God’s mercy, and God’s promised reign.

For me it’s not just that I go to these songs of joy and hope when I am in sorrow; it’s also that sometimes I am overcome by such an awareness of how far, how long, how long, O Lord, until our hearts and our world are fully transformed, fully redeemed, all our tears turned into dancing, when I’m singing them in other contexts.. like at Mass. Like during Eucharist. Sometimes the simultaneous awareness of the already and the not yet is just too intense.

I used to be very self-conscious about this, because in our culture, crying in public is Just Not Done except in personal extremis. I’d try to choke it down, hold it in. I gave up: it was too exhausting. Now I just let the tears come, and sing through them.

So if you see me with tears on my face at church, don’t worry. Weeping is just another form of prayer.

[1] Robin Collins, “Girard and Atonement: An Incarnational Theory of Mimetic Participation.” Violence Renounced, ed. Willard M. Swartley. Telford, PA: Pandora. 2000.

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