Thursday, November 5, 2009

Practices: Calming....and Expressive!

As it hovers over the crucified body of Christ, Giotto's angel is in anguish: full-face, full-body anguish. Pain registers in the eyes, the mouth, the arms rigid with grief, right into the twisted spine -- if an angel even has one. This is lamentation.

I hasten to call lamentation a practice, even a contemplative practice. It's not one directors of the soul and spirit turn to when they seek to help their clients find solace and reduce stress. It's not a mantra, a spiritual passage, or a pattern of steady, rhythmic breathing. In contrast to these calming practices, lamentation expresses suffering: it encourages the one suffering to give voice to that pain.

Fully a third of the psalms in the Hebrew scriptures are psalms of lament:

"Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts;/
all your waves and your billows have gone over me..../
I say to my God, my rock, 'Why have you forgotten me?/
Why must I walk around mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?'/
As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me,/
While they say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'" (Psalm 42:7, 9-10)

Lamentation puts anguish into words: it directs suffering to someone, because it counts on someone being there -- and there listening. Further, lamentation banks on the fact that rage will not break relationship. Finally -- and maybe this happens only sometimes -- the one lamenting falls into the arms of the one listening, the way someone who's cried himself dry or shouted herself hoarse finally falls into the arms of the friend who's been there all along, helplessly witnessing the pain.

Giotto's angel may not be there yet: it appears to be still in the raging stage.

But we need these expressive practices, because we can't be expected to show up before God or the Divine Mystery with only our positive feelings. If the psalms are any indication, God can handle the full-bore, full-body, full spectrum of human emotions.

Pilgrimage is an expressive practice. Last night at dinner a friend asked: "Did you pray a lot on the Camino?" I had to answer: "Not the way I thought I would." Pilgrimage revealed a different register of prayer, prayer that embraces curses, pain, even boredom.

I don't want to lose sight of these expressive practices. They count as contemplative practices, because they connect us in deep ways to the divine when we most need connection.

Someone's there, ready to catch us.


  1. I have been really grateful for these post-pilgrimage reflections; thank you.
    Meanwhile, I am haunted by the image of angels in lamentation.

  2. Thanks. We know this terrain. So it seems do Giotto's angels, who register human emotion every bit as intense as the human figures in this fresco. It consoles me deeply.

    What do the tears do? Anoint? Burn? Bless? Bear witness?

    Different for angels than for humans -- or not?

    I think I've done more reflecting post-pilgrimage than on pilgrimage. On the road, I was so intent about -- well, walking. Nothing more. Nothing less.