Broken open at the abandoned places: a Holy Week reflection

Faith-L'ville 046 Awareness of God does not come by degrees: from timidity to intellectual certainty; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star. Out of endless anxiety, out of denial and despair, the soul bursts out in speechless crying.

– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone

With Anna there is no hiding behind “Minnesota nice,” no pretending to have it all together. As the early afternoon light streams into our group room, she holds nothing back. “I am a hater sometimes. I am one of those people who just doesn’t know how to forgive, but I want to…God seems so far away. I have done terrible things but usually to people who beat me down. Still, I don’t know if I can go on this way. I’m so damn tired. All this hurt is killing me.” We shift in our chairs, letting the weight of her anguished words settle. I see the glimmer of a teardrop forming on Anna’s world-weary face.

Ever so tentatively, Bev, a woman in her late 50’s speaks. “For me, the thing I can’t let myself forget is that I always have choices. No matter what someone else has done to me, I can choose to let my resentments poison me. Or I can let go and let God take care of that mess. I’m not saying that it’s easy but that’s what gives me peace; it is how I get through the day.”

More silence. Then Michelle, a 20-something African American woman, whispers, “I gotta listen. What is the pain teaching me? Do I need to soften my heart somewhere? Maybe the person who hurt me is in even worse shape. Maybe deep down we are all good people, even when we screw things up. We ALL need some help.”

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This exchange is typical in the Spirituality groups I lead. Week after week, I am the privileged witness to the flowing forth of wisdom, amazing in its depth. Even more remarkably, the setting of the group is not a congregation of pious church-goers or a collective of like-minded spiritual pilgrims but one of the locked psychiatry units of the urban medical center where I am a chaplain.

Often those in the group have long-standing mental health histories that have trapped them in a revolving door of lengthy hospitalizations, homelessness, and legal problems. Many abuse drugs and alcohol as a way of “self-treating” the symptoms that haunt them. A significant number have suffered unimaginable trauma and tragedy. And yet I continually find myself inspired, even awed, by the strength, courage, and resilience of these men and women, who, in the eyes of our health-obsessed, image-conscious society, are little more than “social misfits” and “disturbers of the peace.”

From what I can tell, psychiatric wards –  along with prisons, homeless shelters and nursing homes – are among the “abandoned places of empire” to which we often relegate those who are chewed up and spat out in the American Dream’s relentless pursuit of perfection, productivity, and prosperity.  But when I have the eyes to see, it is in these “abandoned places” where  I find the Way of Jesus revealed with great clarity and power.

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Not that I am always open to becoming aware of God’s presence in the people and places I would rather avoid. Like any good denizen of upwardly mobile Middle America, I have done my part to stigmatize people labelled as “deviant.”  Most of the time,  my gaze is fixed firmly on that which is sleek, powerful, “beautiful.” Poor, visibly afflicted people are unwelcome heralds of my own vulnerability and need.  Rather than let my heart be broken open – and changed – I join in our culture’s collective contempt for the ‘other.’

Just the other day, for example, a dishevelled-looking fellow on my bus to work turned on his AM radio (without ear buds!), thus interrupting my  pre-dawn practice of spiritual reading. My first impulse was to be outraged that someone so annoyingly “odd” be allowed to shatter the peace and quiet of our express commute from the suburbs. I had fantasies of tossing his little radio out the window as we sped towards the downtown Minneapolis skyline.

I don’t remember what I was reading that morning – perhaps something on Benedictine spirituality or the New Monasticism.  Or was I in the midst of contemplating a 12 Step meditation or praying the Daily Office?  No matter, my hostile reaction to the presence of this “stranger” on the bus was a stark reminder that the path of transformation entails more than filling my intellect with lofty ideas about compassion, hospitality, recovery,  etc.  Real conversion happens when I allow my heart to be broken open by people I would rather not see,  situations I would rather not experience, and places I would rather avoid.

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I likely would have been among the merry throng of Passover celebrants boisterously cheering Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  I enjoy a rousing political rally and  would have had fun waving a palm or two in homage to that charismatic wonder-worker from Nazareth!

My enthusiasm would have waned quickly a few days later when the forces of Empire began their Shock and Awe campaign to crush the Jesus Movement. There is no way that I would followed the condemned Man of Sorrows to the killing fields of Golgotha, let alone have gone with his women disciples  down to the stench-filled tomb where his corpse had been laid.

And yet it is there in that forsaken wilderness of violence and desolation that the “long arc of the moral universe” began its bend back towards love and justice (Dr. King). Amidst the gloomy backdrop of Holy Saturday – on which death had seemingly won the day – the light and life of the Risen One begins to flicker and then to shine forth in a mighty flame on Easter morning.  The place of utter abandonment becomes the touchstone of the new and everlasting Jerusalem where the lion lies down with the lamb, swords are melded into plough shares, and mourning turned to dancing.

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This Holy Week I find myself grateful for all that I continue to learn from my family, friends, patients, recovery peers – and, yes, strangers on the bus – about walking the Way of Jesus. Namely, I am reminded that to meet the Risen Christ of Easter morning, I must also trod the wilderness path of Good Friday and experience the abandoned tomb of Holy Saturday. The Emmaus Road first winds through a hill called Calvary.

Indeed, there are many such wilderness roads and suffocating tombs (and inhabitants thereof) in late modern America. Christ is risen!  Instead of running from the abandoned people and places of our world, may we allow our hearts to be broken open by them – so broken open that our souls “burst forth in speechless crying.”

Holy Week blessings to all…