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The Weeping Mode

As a parent of young children, I often wonder about how much of the pain and brutality of the world we ought to expose our kids to—which conversations do they need to be absent from, which books and films could they do without exposure to, and when it is appropriate to let them in on the secret that the world can sometimes be kind of a nasty place (I suspect it’s quite often not as much of a “secret” to them as we might like to think).  There can be a fine line between helping your children see that the world is a safe enough place to love and learn and grow and not shielding from the reality of a messed-up world in desperate need of compassionate, committed, and resourceful people to make it better.

This morning I came across a fantastic quote from Richard Rohr (via Mike Todd) that I think beautifully expresses our obligation to the young.  This comes in the context of a discussion of the Beatitudes:

In this third Beatitude, Jesus praises the weeping ones, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not first of all try to separate themselves from it. On our initiated men’s t-shirts, we have a quote from the American Indians, “A young man who cannot cry is a savage. An old man who cannot laugh is a fool.”

If you learn how to enter into solidarity with human suffering when you are young, you will create a humanity that makes it possible for you to smile when you are old. What a paradox. If the young are not led into this human “community of pain” in the first half of life, they become hardened, egocentric, and entitled very early in their lives. Yet baby boomer parenting has thought we needed to—or could—shield our children from all pain and human suffering. I don’t think Jesus would agree with that at all.

“The weeping mode” allows one to carry the dark side of things, the “tears of things” as the Latin poet said, to bear the pain of the world without needing to define perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are usually caught up in. I must hold these contradictions, I need to suffer them, I let them transform me. The weeping mode of life is quite different than the succeeding mode, the controlling mode, the fixing mode, the climbing mode, or even the explaining mode. Perhaps it is in the Beatitudes more than anywhere else that we see how utterly counter-cultural Jesus really is.

Adapted from Jesus’ Plan for the New World, p.133

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I imagine in your case that your children will learn this fine line from you, even when you are not consciously teaching them.

    I am skeptical of Rohr’s exegesis of the beatitudes. The expression “those who mourn” seems most likely to be referring to the remnant of Israel, rather than to those who our contemporary culture believes suffer unjustly . There is nothing in the beatitudes that does not have antecedents in the Psalms and Prophets. Jesus’ theology seems to conform to the Hebrew Bible as much as any rabbi of his day. He may have been countercultural in the sense that he resisted Roman rule, but he was no bohemian in the sense that we speak of counterculture today.

    Rohr has recycled the beatitude and made something new of it. He is reading a contemporary narrative into the words of the Bible, or he is trying to use the Bible as an authority for his contemporary sentiments and beliefs.

    It is, of course, the task of a preacher to find the meaning of the old words, the old prophecies, for people today, or, to show how our lives still fit in the Biblical context. In my view, reading the Bible on its own terms makes that task extremely difficult and most preachers fail. I cannot even tell whether Rohr understands what the Bible says on its own terms.

    This does not mean that I don’t sympathize with his concern. I do. In addition, I think there is a theological basis for this concern. I just don’t think he has found it.

    I don’t think it is true that parents have shielded their children from suffering or seeing suffering in others. Even those who try, fail. If anything is lacking it is teaching children how to deal with it, with their own suffering and with that of others. But this is not just neglectful parenting, and certainly not intentionally harmful parenting. It is in the nature of modernity to be bewildered and angered by suffering, and to be unable to offer life and sorrow affirming remedies. When confronted by the suffering of others, most people just don’t know what to say or do. Not even preachers.

    In the ancient world, people did blame themselves or others for suffering. This is obvious in the Bible. This is apparent even in the gospel in the word “repent.” In our day, we don’t look at it that way. We see it as Rohr sees it, that suffering is unjustified and part of a harsh reality. This is, of course, one reason that Darwin, and many others, have rejected religion. Mircea Eliade observed that in the ancient world to believe as we believe about suffering was to believe that chaos rules the world. But in the modern world we believe it is repugnant to think that suffering is somehow the fault of ourselves or others. The result is the way of life that Rohr laments. He is fighting modernity at the same time that he defends it, that he embraces the modern reality. Do you see? He can’t win.

    August 12, 2009
    • I don’t have any particular disagreement with what you’ve said here—whether about the ancient world or about the unique challenges of modernity. I suppose I would simply say that I don’t see a reason why it couldn’t be a both/and rather than an either/or situation. I don’t think acknowledging the historical context of the Beatitudes (the suffering remnant of Israel, etc) necessarily means that it can’t also refer to contemporary examples of those who suffer, mourn, etc. I think Scripture can have multiple levels of meaning and application. Rohr’s exegesis may leave us with some unanswered questions, but I don’t think that bringing modern concerns to the Biblical text is illegitimate. You pointed out that this is the job of the preacher—I would certainly agree that it is a difficult task, but by no means an impossible one.

      August 13, 2009
      • Ken #

        I think one could say that Rohr’s exegesis of this beatitude is typological. That use of that approach is well established in the church and its theologies. I think that one can even see the use of this approach in the Old and New Testaments. It is certainly there in the writings of the earliest theologians.

        In addition, Christians have found meaning in suffering through the suffering of Christ.

        I think that in modernity the success, or credibility, of this approach depends on listeners and readers not understanding the historical meanings of the words. I think in modernity, with our attention to history and the meaning of history, we find it harder to accept the typological approach. If we see the first meaning, it is hard to sustain belief in the typological meanings given to the text by later readers.

        I once told a prominent Biblical scholar, my mentor at the University, that my education in Hebrew and the Bible made it harder for me to be an honest preacher, harder to have confidence in the kind of exegesis that goes into preaching. He said, “It happened to me too.” He retained his love for the scripture, as have I. But he gave up preaching, as did I.

        To the extent that I still engage in what might be called ministry, it is suffering that engages me. I do what I can to ease pain. If I differ from Rohr, it is only perhaps that I cannot even say as much as he says about it and feel that I am being honest. Unlike Rohr, I cannot criticize parents or children for their failures to deal with suffering, “to enter into solidarity” with it, to speak meaningfully of it. I refuse it meaning. Its source or reason cannot be named. We cannot name it in modernity. Jesus could. (He called on us to “repent.”) But we are from a different era.

        On what basis do you evaluate your own sermons, your own exegesis of scripture and suffering, your own attempts at practical theology?

        August 13, 2009
      • On what basis do you evaluate your own sermons, your own exegesis of scripture and suffering, your own attempts at practical theology?

        Well, I guess the main criteria is a pretty straightforward one. Does what I say help people to love God and love their neighbour? I realize that’s hopelessly vague and difficult to measure, but I think that is what preaching ought to do. Of course bound up in that is helping people to come to a better understanding of Scripture and what following Christ means in the 21st century. I think part of it is also to look at the world with all of its suffering honestly and to be a part, however small, of ameliorating it in big ways and small ways. Like you, I’m suspicious of attempts to find “meanings” for suffering, but I also believe that our deep aversion to it is theologically significant. I think it speaks to the fact that we were created for a reality different than the one we experience, and as much as possible I try to help people see what this reality might look like and what our lives ought to look like in order to point towards it.

        August 14, 2009
  2. Fantastic quote, Ryan. As usual Father Richard nails it. This male initiation issue is interesting. Initially I was sceptical, given the work we do with women. A number of the so-called men’s ministries make me very nervous. But Rohr says that if adolescent males do not undergo some kind of passage, they do not become men. He goes to point out that this has been the fate of many, many western males.

    August 12, 2009
    • Thanks for drawing attention to the quote Mike. I’m looking forward to hearing how your trip goes—including how your young friend processes what he experiences.

      August 13, 2009
  3. Hey Ryan, I thought of this post as I read the following words from Eugene Peterson, only his words are related to the context of pastoring:

    “Among other things pastoral work is a decision to deal, on the most personal and intimate terms, with suffering. It does not try to find ways to minimize suffering or ways to avoid it. It is not particularly interested in finding explanations for it. It is not a search after the cure for suffering. Pastoral work engages suffering. It is a conscious, deliberate plunge into the experience of suffering. The decision has its origin and maintains its integrity in the scriptures that shape pastoral ministry.” (Five Smooth Stones, 113-14)

    August 13, 2009
    • That’s another great quote Dave—thanks for sharing it. I remember reading that one last summer as I was trying to get ready to “be” a pastor and I’ve already found it to be true.

      August 13, 2009
  4. Paul Johnston #

    I’ve never experienced acute communal suffering. No flood, no famine, no war. My experience of suffering is limited to the personal and familial.

    One thing I’ve learned is that I’m no innocent. I am both victim and perpetrator. Consoler and accomplice. I am not afforded the self deceit that suggests it is nobler to embrace the suffering of others and seek praise and reward as a consequence. In the same way it is right for the law breaker to make restitution, it is right for me to take some responsibility for the suffering of others and help make things right. It is my apology. No more; no less.

    Apart from Christ I have tended towards feelings of self pity and self righteousness. With Christ I gravitate towards notions of accountability and service.

    In the end it is about choice. Which roles do I actively pursue, which do I reject.

    To not enter into solidarity with suffering is to deny your contributions to it’s existence and your subsequent responsibilities to make things better.

    August 14, 2009
    • Thanks for the reminder Paul.

      August 14, 2009
  5. Larry S #

    Ryan, I’ve read only as much of Rohr as you’ve included in your post but this is my initial response.

    ROHR “The weeping mode” allows one to carry the dark side of things, the “tears of things” as the Latin poet said, to bear the pain of the world without needing to define perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are usually caught up in. I must hold these contradictions, I need to suffer them, I let them transform me. The weeping mode of life is quite different than the succeeding mode, the controlling mode, the fixing mode, the climbing mode, or even the explaining mode.”

    This sounds like a kind of chaplaincy – someone who is present (but does not actually ‘do’ anything) with the one who suffers. David’s quote of Eugene Peterson speaks of ‘engaging suffering.’ Several posters have mentioned pastoral ministry and suffering. I’ve ministered both within pastoral church settings, as a chaplain within various custodial settings and now work within the criminal justice system.

    Several years ago, I heard the words ‘secondary trauma’ which helped me to put a label on what I was feeling by getting close to people who were suffering. In my view it’s not enough to weep with those who are suffering or have some existential sense of the dark side. Although perpetrators may well be caught up in some form of ‘tragic reality’ and come from tortured families of origin – ACTIVE perpetrators must be stopped.

    The Church has a dismal history when it comes to recognizing and dealing with domestic violence and sexual abuse. Too often the Church has believed the crocodile tears of a predator and has handled matters ‘in house.’ Since several posters on this thread appear to be in some form of ministry it’s my hope that those in ministry engage in suffering by providing safe havens where victims find safety and justice.

    August 14, 2009
    • Thanks for this Larry. I think you are right to say that “being present” with those who suffer is not enough—that part of what it means to follow Jesus (and to love our neighbour as ourselves) is to actively resist evil and suffering. I would want certainly like Rohr to say more about what ought to result from entering the human “community of pain.” Entering this community is not and cannot be an end in and of itself. Maybe that’s a lot to expect from an isolated quote…

      August 14, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    If we strive to empty ourselves of ourselves and work to replace that with Christ within ourselves, doesn’t all suffering from suffering diminish proportionate to the success of our transformation? And if we fully transformed wouldn’t everything then be seen as a product of His love and all things, good and bad, as grace?

    August 16, 2009
    • I don’t think suffering diminishes in proportion to how “transformed” (according to whom?) we are. Jesus himself suffered. I think it’s possible to gain a different perspective on suffering over time and with experience, but I don’t think it ever ceases to be suffering.

      August 16, 2009
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan,

    My observation wasn’t that suffering diminished but that our”suffering” response to it does.

    Our finite understanding looks at some circumstances and views them as abhorrent and unjust. God’s infinite understanding sees beyond our limitations and reconciles all circumstances, making them beautiful and just.

    It isn’t for us to know the whys and wherefores. It is enough that we comfort and carry one another when suffering comes.

    Unjust human suffering, accepted and endured; joy trumping sorrow; forgiveness trumping revenge, is both a victory for the individual and for the Kingdom.

    August 21, 2009
    • Thanks for clarifying Paul. I agree with virtually everything you say here, with the possible exception of this:

      God’s infinite understanding sees beyond our limitations and reconciles all circumstances, making them beautiful and just.

      While I think that God will ultimately reconcile and redeem the suffering and evil his planet has witnessed, I don’t think he makes circumstances of suffering beautiful. I think suffering and evil break God’s heart just as they break ours. There is a big difference between saying that God can bring goodness and beauty out of evil and saying that from God’s perspective what we see as abhorrent, unjust, etc is in fact beautiful. There may be rare occasions where this is the case, but I wouldn’t want to make this a general rule. Perhaps this was not your intent, I just wanted to make that distinction.

      August 21, 2009
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for the distinction Ryan, it is an important one. The circumstances of suffering are what they are. But to the heart that loves, as God would have us love, all is made beautiful in the end.

    August 22, 2009
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Perhaps this thought better expresses my point of view, Ryan. If suffering can be a precondition to redemption, then pain and loss with regard to our tragedies, is not the final word.

    August 23, 2009
  10. Couldn’t agree more!

    August 23, 2009

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