What to do with Passion Week? Or: Blessed are those who mourn

Neither my husband nor I are very churchy people. But our interest in monastic spirituality has brought us to participate in the liturgy of the Christian tradition more closely again. In the years of our youth and then during our academic pursuits, we were interested in many things other than the liturgy of the church year. Perhaps this was a good thing. As old Søren Kierkegaard used to say: you first have to reflect yourself out of Christianity in order to come back to it anew. 

Nevertheless, I am still occasionally suffering through the Catholic Mass. Sitting, standing, kneeling, repeating, standing again... But I have come to honor and enjoy the Benedictine tradition, especially their reduced "liturgy of the hours," with chanting the psalms three times a day – something which has survived for more than a thousand years. Many trends come and go. Stability is what our hearts long for. A home for the constant changes of our spiritual journey. Even if, or especially because, we do not understand its depth or complexity.

I have recently begun to discover CG Jung. Again. It was probably time that a Lutheran pastor's child like me turned psychologist-philosopher would finally start talking to Jung, another Lutheran pastor's child who developed a depth psychology out of the need to make sense of the religious life.  Jung suggests, and it might be true, that in the time of midlife we are opened up to the world of the unconscious. 

My new-found interest in Jung came, oddly enough, because of my deepening interest in Benedictine spirituality and in the words and illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. What a sad thing it is, how little honor we give to the symbols and dreams of our inner world, these guide posts from beyond, deeply important to all religions and wisdom traditions.

Jung suggests, that the church year has much to offer for our personal individuation. It is a system of rites and symbols with healing powers, a school to learn the art of living.  


What to do about passion week?

How then can we understand the remembrance of Christ's passion in these terms? What shall we do with this strange time of the church year, which comes upon us so quickly that we barely have time to wrap up the Christmas lights we had just recently thrown over the trees in the back yard? I have come to understand that the passion week is a practice week. The practice I speak of is that of grief and dying. Beware: this surely is not an inviting topic, so you can now choose not to read any further. 

I remember the Passion week we spent in Munich, in Catholic Bavaria. The Victualian Markt there is a significant tourist draw, partly because all the locals shop and sell there, too.  Plants, baskets, potatoes, cheese, wine, beer, meats, bread, fruit, vegetables, honey, spices, seafood, are all on display interspersed with boutique restaurants and a beer garden.  In the time before Easter Sunday you may imagine how busy it was. While enjoying the bustle downtown, we happened to step into a church on the Saturday before Easter. Despite many people in the church, quiet enveloped us.  The worshipers sat silently, or kneeled quietly in the back of the church, circled around the corpse of Jesus, which had been taken down from the cross and laid onto a death bed. 

Many thoughts came over me, judgmental thoughts. What are they doing? What is this odd ritual? Isn’t this a bit too literally taken? Kneeling in front of a wooden, richly painted, Jesus-corpse? Are they taking it too far?   But the reverence of the place made me sit down. Fortunately, there is a philosophical method quite different from this judgmental attitude. If you want to understand, says the German philosopher Gadamer, first you must empty your mind from all you already know. You have to look at the situation with a fresh mind. Look, sense, take in what you see. Later we will try to make sense out of it.

So I sat down for a while, watching these people kneeling in deep reverence in front of the dead Jesus. Some, seemed to be in deep grief.  It did not take long until I understood the profound effect this tradition had on the psyche of its followers. These people really grieved. They really suffered, they really mourned. And they do so every year, in this season. They practiced learning to cope with what we would rather suppress into the underground: the suffering, the dying, the loss, the dark night of the soul, when even Jesus felt God-forsaken:

Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani? which is translated, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
— Jesus, upon the cross

Most of my clients are not very religious in the sense of practicing a faith life. Some are quite opposed to anything religious. And still: they know very well how it feels to be God forsaken.

Here is where negative theology starts. It begins with the existential experience of people, of indeed feeling God forsaken, hopeless, in despair. It is the lack of God, of hope, of Divine love in our lives which is the starting point for our questions, for our pilgrimages and for our search for the deeper life and Divine enlightenment. There must be something more! A place our soul can find rest. Feeling God forsaken is a dialectical situation, as the Danish theologian Kierkegaard would say. It feels like the end of the world to us, it is indeed inward dying, and still, it asks about God in a more profound way than our intellectual mind ever could:

When I am in this time of trial, going through this pain, through this dying, where even God dies, will there, can there be any light at the end?

Thus, the people in that dark church sitting or kneeling in front of the dead God incarnate taught me an important lesson. Do not take the piety of people lightly. Sit with them in openness, and then understand. Soon I was overcome by the grief and mourning. I wept with them and I prayed with them and I stood silence with them.  And I left the church renewed, with a deeper understanding of Black Saturday.


And now for us, this week. We are called to a week of mourning, of translating the passion into our own lives' context. It is easier to stay busy as we often do with spring break. Spring break is a good time for doing all sorts of things: cleaning up, writing articles, having a vacation. For many it is also just work as usual.  But being called to mourning is an existential task. No religion can do it for us. It cannot be mere theater that we watch.  Still, religion can help to remind us of the need for mourning and can provide for us an occasion for it. There is no resurrection, no new beginning without the deep mourning of the old, without letting go what we loved so dearly, without mourning our losses. 

The Syrian Fathers Ephrem and Simeon ... proposed that tears be a sacrament in the Church. Saint Ephrem went so far as to say until you have cried you don’t know God.
— Richard Rohr, Blessed are those who mourn

Mourning along with the Christian liturgy is for many a journey on which they are invited to go, a helpful bridge to their own mourning without the painful opening of deep personal wounds. And I am sure many of those wounds can be healed by such Stellvertreter (replacement) mourning. Jesus as Stellvertreter. Jesus stands in, not only as a projection for our all pain, our all losses, our all guilts, but also as the hope that transcends all sufferings.

In Jungian practice one is encouraged to practice active imagination. It is a powerful tool to truly enter into dialogue with our own inner movements, e.g. with all that comes to the forefront while reading the reflections above. It may be resistance, or perhaps pain,  or tears, or confused non-understanding. The advice is to walk with what ever comes up for a bit and to be open to the unfolding of what lies beneath. Not in order to get lost in the feelings but to have a conversation with them, to see and to welcome. 

I am not sure if it can be done without tears. But I know that such tears will turn into the melting water which brings Spring and new beginnings. Soon.

And may Divine Peace guide, counsel and comfort you this passion week!







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