Spiritual Practice of You – The Practice of Lament
Christians around the world, many will be spending the next four weeks in the Christian church celebrating the season of Advent, looking forward to annual celebration of the birth of Jesus. For many, this is a time of joy, hope and celebration of family and friends. For others, however, this is a time of sadness, despair, and loneliness.
To cry is to be human. When we come into the world, we often enter with a cry. I remember the first cries of my children. It was their declaration that they had arrived. In those first cries, they were exclaiming their discomfort with this new, bright, loud, and cold world. We can all agree that this type of crying is normal and appropriate, however, in the west, there is a tendency to avoid negative feelings and therefore the practice of lament is often misunderstood.
In Judaism, and in the Old Testament and even in other Middle Eastern cultures, lament is not crying is a form of prayer. One third of the book of Psalms are lament prayers. Later in this post, I will talk about grief for a moment. For much of this post, I want to lean on our Jewish brothers and sisters and explore lament from their perspective and how we can bring the practice into our own spiritual regimen.
Kinot- Poems of Lament
In Judaism, a kinot (the plural is kinot, but just one is called a kinah) is the Hebrew word for mournful liturgical poems. One might think of “poetry as something that you read on your porch on a Sunday afternoon while sipping a cup of tea – but this is a little different. Kinot are poems that we recite aloud in synagogue, as part of a community, as a spiritual practice: as a way of somehow communicating with or beseeching God, and of getting into the spirit of mourning” (Aleph Beta, 2023). For the early Hebrew people, kinah was a practice to mourn the destruction of their temple and later as a practice as a community to be recited at burials, where kinot would be sung to pull at the heartstrings of those who suffered a loss. These are intentional practices that are embraced and celebrated as part of worship for the Jewish community.
Why this may be important comes from a past memory of my early preaching days when the “what would Jesus do” movement was going around. As cringy as it is, Jesus would have actively participated in this practice and can be seen at the death of his friend Lazarus. For me, the words, “Jesus wept” are the most powerful words in the Gospels.
In the Christian, canon, the Book of Lamentations is the book the Jewish people call Eicha or Sefir Kinot. The purpose of reciting Eicha was to “arouse one’s heart to mourn,” A closer look at the role of kinot in the Old Testament demonstrates many instances of kinot. For example, David mourning the death of Jonathon. Halbertal, in his article on lamentation, offers, “A mourner experiences loneliness. His beloved is gone, he has lost the umbilical cord that had bound him to the world. His state of solitude is intensified by the immense gulf between his inner experience of loss and the world around him, which seems to proceed as always, with no moment of pause, as if nothing had happened” (Halbertal, n.d). Here I feel we can experience the tangible reality of the pain of suffering, of grief.
Halbertal offers this synopsis of the active nature and interrelatedness one has with their community during times of lament. He offers:
The mourner does not shave or bathe, does not wear clean clothes, and is not allowed to leave his home; he loses his social persona, and withdraws in solitude from the world. The consolers who come to the mourner try to woo him back to the world; they extend their hands to him as if to replace the hand that had been stretched to him from the world but is there no more. They share in his pain, providing him with an echo of his inner experience of grief, affirming some parallel between his inner state and the outside world. They are supposed to bring him back to the world to redeem him from his solitude.
The Spiritual Practice of Lament
As a practice then, Halbertal offers that lament has four elements-
- Turn to God
- Bring your complaint
- Ask for help
- Choose to trust
As a former pastor, and now a therapist, the last one hits. In the above reflection, we see the active nature of lament, that is not a static event that is done alone in silence. It is instead a community event. Trust then is a secondary practice that also needs to be cultivated in these times. I choose as a follower of Jesus to believe that God is right with us, allowing the healing powers of medicine do its thing, to let the sting of grief, be painful as long as it needs to be and to trust that whatever ok is for the next moment is the okay that needed to be present in the next moment. If Buddhism and Stoicism have taught me anything over the years is that things change. Seneca offers that “we, however, may be forgiving for bursting into tears, if only our tears have not flowed to excess and if we have checked them by our own effort.” Again, he offers, “but even while you keep watch it (your grief) slips away from you, and the sharper it is, the more speedily it comes to an end.”
In this time of great celebration, if you are not feeling it, allow these feelings to arise and fall and if needed, seek out a therapist who can talk to you in an objective way with no agendas, just a listening ear to help you through this time. As a practice of you, allowing yourself to mourn, to be sad, to be unhappy with the way things are going or have gone enhances your authenticity. Each of us is a work in progress. The practice of you to practice your becoming and trusting God to co create with us the next steps in our journey of this becoming.
Halbertal, M. (n.d.). The Key Word of the Book of Lamentations. My Jewish Learning. Retrieved November 25, 2023, from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-key-word-of-the-book-of-lamentations/
(n.d.). Kinot. Aleph Beta. Retrieved November 25, 2023, from https://www.alephbeta.org/tisha-bav/kinot