This morning I was driven by a series of unexpected discoveries to write in a way that I haven’t written in almost a year, and what resulted was something that I feel compelled to share with whomever might wish to read. It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything for this blog; I can’t make any promises for the future, though I would like to write more. For now, I hope what follows will be enriching to those who take time with it.
The only way that I can begin is to say that I believe it is in some sense the calling of every human that we honestly tell our own story with all of its confusion and brokenness, and that in so doing we help others to fully experience their own confusion and brokenness. This general human calling is, in my mind, much of what dignifies the narrative arts. It’s in trying to come to terms with my own feelings of gratitude for artists like Bebo Norman who do this well that I’ve come to understand the important of giving voice to our own pain. But I think this calling is in no way limited to songwriters and painters and such. In directing each of us to “weep with those who weep,” (Romans 12:15), God is calling all of us to weep together. When we honestly cry out under the strain of the brokenness of this world, we help others to feel that their own sense of the brokenness within them and around them is real and valid. This is crucial because it’s only as we allow ourselves to fully experience these things that we can fully experience the redeeming and transforming presence of God in Christ. As C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, but shouts in our pains.” Jesus, Immanuel, God-With-Us, draws near to us in our suffering. If we suppress the reality of our own suffering, we are refusing to enter into the very place where God draws near to us in Christ and reveals the depth of His love for us. “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) Those who do not know how to mourn cannot know how to be comforted. Those who will not allow their own suffering to overtake them, who will not admit themselves to be crushed, cannot feel God draw near in Christ. There are holy places known only to Jesus and the mourners who meet Him there, kept secret from proud people who refuse to be taken into the full experience of their own weakness.
If you know me well, you know that I’ve long been a lover of Celtic traditional music. I think what’s always attracted me to Celtic music is the simple, raw emotional honesty of it. Covering the whole range of emotions, from the heights of shameless joy and exhilaration to the depths of undisguised grief and sorrow, from restless rowdiness and warlike anger to calm contentment and quiet longing, the music of Ireland and Scotland is honest. Experiencing that honesty has allowed me to become less afraid of my own emotions, and, in the end, has made a way for a fuller experience of the hope of the gospel.
In the quiet moments of my life there is often some melody or another semi-consciously flowing through my mind. On this particular cool, gray Aurora morning, as I rose to prepare for an early meeting with my pastor at a local coffee-shop, that melody was the tune of “Coaineadh na dTri Muire (Lament of the Three Marys)” as recorded by Cathie Ryan. I’d invite you to listen as you read on. It’s a traditional Irish Gaelic song that I’ve enjoyed many times for the profound longing expressed in the melody and brought out by the arrangement. Even though I had not looked into the meaning of its lyrics until this morning, there was something pulling at me every time I listened.
Perhaps it’s subjective, but I’ve always felt that the Gaelic languages possess a certain quality of musical beauty. I can listen to the sung or even spoken Gaelic word with enjoyment even when I possess little to no understanding of what’s actually being said. But on this morning, my curiosity was provoked, and I ran a quick internet search to learn more about the meaning and history of the song. What I did not expect is to find myself sitting in the parking lot of Java Plus twenty minutes later, wrecked and overwhelmed with emotion, scarcely able to pull myself together for the meeting with my pastor that had brought me out of bed at an earlier hour than usual, because I had been struck anew with the way that God draws near in our pain through the person of Christ and His suffering for us on the cross.
“Lament of the Three Marys” is, at first blush, a religious song. It opens with a phrase which, translated, is a question in the voice of Mary the mother of Christ to Peter the Apostle, as to where her Son has gone. The foreboding reply is the voice of Peter saying, “I saw him a while ago in the midst of his enemies.” Each line of the ensuing dialogue is punctuated with the exclamation, “Ochóne is ochóne ó,” an expression of grief which has no perfect translation but is best rendered, “alas and alack,” or “sorrow upon great sorrow.” We are then presented with a vision of Mary the mother of Christ at the foot of the cross, turning to her companions Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas and inviting them to mourn with her the suffering and loss of her Son.
But in spite of its religious theme, this is no church-song. Songs of this sort were not used in services in the Catholic churches of Ireland. That is not how they were sung and heard. They were sung by the people at occasions of mourning the loss of loved ones in order to give voice to their own grief. These songs came into use as substitutes for a more primitive way of communal mourning that the religious authorities didn’t approve of.
The ancient grieving tradition of the Irish people, known as “keening,” was apparently a sort of semi-ceremonial, lyrical, half-musical wailing, often assisted by hired mourners, akin to what we see in the Gospels at the house of Jairus after the death of his daughter. This traditional mourning was suppressed by the Catholic church in Ireland, and with it was also suppressed the release of raw emotion it provided. Catholic ceremony was solemn, regulated, and presided over by a priest; “keening” was the domain of the female relatives of the deceased, and of perhaps some generally female member of the community whose own personal losses and griefs had enabled her to give voice to the grief of others (which service was offered for a generally rather cursory remuneration). The trouble with the church’s way of mourning was not that it was ceremonial and liturgical, but that the ceremonies of the church made no room for and gave no expression to true depth of feeling. There was no provision for any moment’s loss of emotional control. But human grief consumes us if not given an honest voice, and thus “keening” survived in one form or another throughout the centuries in spite of its suppression. It really only passed from the Irish culture completely in the mid-1950s as a result of modernity.
There’s an episode of the BBC Radio 4 program Seriously? called “Songs for the Dead” which explores the history and the loss of the Irish keening tradition. I listened to it this morning through the podcasts app on my iPhone in the course of my research. It’s a good listen, not just for historical curiosity, but for the presenter Marie-Louise Muir’s insights into what the loss of authentic grieving has done not just for the emotional health of her Irish people but also for the modern world at large. Whether we discard it for the blank despair of modernity or allow it to be smothered by solemn religious ceremony, when we give up the full expression of our grief, we lose touch with our own humanity. For to be broken-hearted is not to give up hope. Only those who love can know loss, and in the same way it is only those who have hope that can be broken in heart. The Christian view of suffering is that all of the pain we ever feel is at root the pain of paradise lost. When we feel pain, we feel the fall. Where the awareness of a paradise past and a paradise future fades, there is no longer any reason or justification for pain and sorrow. Why should we hold out hope against what always has been, and always will be? If we lack the capacity to be fully alive with grief in this broken world, it is because we have forgotten that the world was once not broken, and will one day be healed. Hope amplifies our heartache as much as it soothes it. It is only a heart that is dead to hope, like a dead body, that feels no pain for itself or for others.
Wherever the keening tradition was effectively suppressed in the Irish past, the people found their own voice for heartache and loss in the fostering of a tradition of religious folk-song within their broader musical traditions. Hence, the “Lament of the Three Marys,” and others like it. These religious songs are distinguished from other religious folk-song traditions around the world in that they focus almost exclusively on the crucifixion, and are typically written in the voice of Mary, the mother of Christ. The Irish people subtly resisted the Church’s suppression of their native traditions of grieving by finding voice for their own inconsolable sense of loss at the death of loved ones in the voice of Mary, pierced with sorrow as she stood by the cross of her Son. Says Angela de Burca, a scholar on Irish religious song, on the songs that make up this tradition, “They depict the grieving Mary not as the stoical, silent woman of the Latin Stabat Mater Dolorosa, but as a furiously angry and eloquent Irish bean chaointe, or keening-woman, her hair streaming behind her as she runs barefoot through the desert to reach her son… Although invariably sung in a spirit of great devotion, the songs of Mary’s lament also contain a note of defiance, for their last lines often promise a blessing to anyone who will lament Christ’s death on the cross.” In this Mary there is no saintly transcendence, no dull and unfeeling resignation to the divine will. She is wide-eyed, torn, stricken, blindsided and bewildered by loss. Fully alive, and human enough to speak for us in our own bitter pain.
What was it that gave to the Irish people this different vision of the mother of Jesus than what the Church taught them? What, but the Comforter Himself? This Mary is no quasi-divine who stands apart from our grief on a holy plateau of pious resignation. This is a Mary who, though she may be the holiest of all God’s people, reels with wild agony and disbelief just like us as she is pierced with a pain that passes understanding. Those who sang her story sang not of the Mary that was given them by the church, but of the Mary they needed, and the Christ they needed. No one could refuse them the right to hear their own pain in the holiest things. If they could not be allowed to open wide their throats to tell out their own grief, then they would tell out the grief of another whose voice no priest could claim the authority to silence, and feel their own grief fully told in hers.
I’m convinced that none but a Man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief, could lead the human heart to find such things in His story. For it is in Christ that we find ourselves known in the midst of our suffering. It is in Christ that we see God with us—not God present in some mystical sense, as though He sort of hangs about in the air around us when we are sad and hurting, but God indwelling our story, the Word spelled out in the midst of our pain, God on a cross sinking through our suffering and beyond into the emptiness of absolute death. Only the Spirit of God can reveal the presence of God to the human heart in this way. The natural mind does not know how to conceive of such a God. This divine kindness is the sort of thing we couldn’t dreamed up on our own.
Mary, in the words of this lament, this “coaineadh,” this keening, pleads in the wondering language of grief as she beholds her Beloved broken on the cross, “Is that my child who I weaned in my arms and nourished? Sorrow upon sorrow! My love, big is your burden, let your mother help you carry it.” And her Beloved replies, “Little mother, we each must carry our own cross.” One can hear in these words the consolation that Mary must have desperately needed as she was led away from the cross of Christ by her own son John, the brother of Jesus, at the Lord’s direction (John 19:26-27); torn from her Son, unwilling to leave Him while all others fled and even God began to turn His face. For if He was to be utterly forsaken on account of our sin, how could any who loved Him remain with Him in that dark hour? “Little mother,” He says, with the sins of whole world weighing on His titanic shoulders. “Here I must go on alone. On this cross we cannot suffer together. Of the weight that I carry you cannot lift a single gram. Do not try to carry my burden. I have come to carry Yours.” Only He can bear His cross, for only a heart so great and so broad and so perfect as His own could sustain wounds deep and wide enough to heal this whole broken, sin-sick world. But as He insists on bearing His cross alone, He gives Mary a word for her own grief that identifies her with Him, and Him with her. “Your suffering, too,” He says, “is a cross. I call it a cross, because your suffering has meaning in mine.” He who bore His cross alone as He did so took all the loneliness out of every cross that comes after, if we are willing to surrender our suffering to the power of His own. He invites us to present ourselves fully for our pain as He did, to show up completely for our own suffering, for there was no part of the mind and heart and soul and body of Christ that was not offered up on the cross. So it is that as we allow ourselves to be pierced, we know that there is no grief that He does not fully know, and in which we are not fully known. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
But let us beware lest we are too easily comforted. Let us beware lest our love and our mourning are so shallow that they need no forsaken Man on a cross and grief-stricken mother Mary standing by to make sense of them. It was these Irish that refused to surrender their inconsolable grief for the shallow piety of proud ceremony that saw Christ with them as He was and is. How easily we settle for so much less than this clear sight of Christ in our grief! “Time heals all wounds,” we say. We speak of grieving as learning to “let go” of what we have lost. But only those who refuse to be satisfied with anything less than the renewing of all things in Christ can learn how to live in the light of the hope that the Gospel offers us. True and godly grieving is not about letting go. It is learning to be like the trees that lay down their leaves in faith until the winter is gone and the spring returns. And so we rise like Mary from the foot of the cross, our own burden as glory-bound men and women in a broken world resting squarely on our shoulders. If we suffer with Him, we shall be glorified with Him; for inasmuch as we do not withhold ourselves from suffering in Him, He will not withhold the glory of His new creation from us.