The fifth mountain: Travel lightly, let it go

Connection to heaven (photo by Martin Malina by the Kindersley Range, BC, July 2019)

Twelve-step programs for recovery, founded in the early 20th century by Bill Wilson has evolved to healing journeys not just for alcoholics, but for anyone struggling with addiction. I was just listening to a podcast of someone suffering from depression who started a group at his church called “Twelve steps for normal people.”[1] It’s become that effective for anyone who wants to recover, heal, and grow.

This orientation towards personal well-being is important, because healthy individuals mean healthy faith communities, and vice versa.

It’s the first of the twelve steps that launches us on the path of recovery for anything.[2] It teaches us how sin in general is overcome not through personal willpower or by control. We open our hearts to God’s healing more by recognizing, right at the start, that we are powerless to overcome.

For example, we don’t become charitable by willpower, by saying to ourselves, “Be charitable!” Rather, we recognize the moments when we were totally uncharitable. And we first need to weep over them. That’s what confession is: acknowledging and admitting our limitations.

The way we stay on the path with any authenticity is to experience our incapacity and our failure to do something even good. This is the genius of what Paul calls “the folly of the cross”[3]

Constant failure at loving, for example, is actually what keeps us learning how to love. Nineteenth century saint, Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) called it her “Little Way”. She writes in her letters how it was failing to love every day that kept her on the path of love.[4]

We hear today the fifth and final tip for the Lenten journey: Travel lightly; let it go. How do we do that?

Even before he gets to the last mountain on our Lenten journey—the Mount of Olives[5]—Jesus had already shown his openness to expressing grief. At the death of his friend, Lazarus, Jesus wept.[6]Then, as he approached the city and made his way up to Jerusalem for the last time, the Gospel of Luke records that Jesus “wept over it.”[7]

On the Mount of Olives, the day before he died, Jesus weeps when he prays: “Not my will by Thy will be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, all the Gospel writers describe Jesus in a state of great agitation and distress. Luke writes that “In his anguish … his sweat [or tears] became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”[8] In the Psalms for Lent and Holy week, we read the words Jesus himself prayed: “I cry to you, O Lord,” and “my eye is consumed with grief.”[9]

Jesus cries. What about you?

In our culture, we tend to be ashamed of crying, especially in front of others. Many of us may have been raised not to show our tears. We may have learned that tears show weakness and make us vulnerable. Therefore crying is not appropriate in the context of religious piety and public discourse.

The Gospels tell us otherwise. You will notice in the readings for this Passion Sunday the emphasis on the ‘face’—the human face. Tears, of course, emerge from our eyes and are displayed on our face. Our face reveals what is true in our hearts and who we really are.

“I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” the prophet declares, “therefore I have set my face like flint …”[11] And, the Psalmist prays what Jesus prayed during his passion: “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”[12]

Showing your face, is showing both your grief and your love. Showing your face is an act of love. There is a relation between the depth of our love and a corresponding sense of grief. “It is the depth of our love that determines the intensity of our weeping.”[13]

In his book, Faces: The Changing look of Humankind, Milton Brener presents a detailed study of the way in which the portrayal of the human face evolved in history.[14] Noting that 90 percent of emotional communication is non-verbal, most of this non-verbal communication is expressed through the face.

What is surprising is that there are virtually no faces in prehistoric art. Its subjects are mainly animals. And where there are humans, all the figurines are headless; and where there is a head, though there may be hair there is no face. When faces do begin to appear they are expressionless, schematic and non-individualized.

A major change occurred in the sixth century BC, incidentally about the time we have some of the earliest scriptures written down, where portrayals of the face give way to a more individualized, varied and emotionally expressive and empathic presentation. 

Today we may miss the revolutionary impact the scriptures had on the first readers and listeners of the sacred text. Imagine the shock reading and hearing about human faces! The very mention of, indeed emphasis on, the face of Jesus—and the prophets, the Psalmist and the followers of Jesus—speaks to the importance of expressing emotions in the life of faith. And the life of God in Christ.

Our hearts are the dwelling places of God. Yet, all of them are made of fragile glass. Tears signify the fragility of the heart. They expose the brokenness and vulnerability of the soul.

When words fail to express what we feel, tears are a tangible, trusted way, of addressing our pain and our sorrow. Through weeping, we learn not just by speculating, analyzing, explaining it all away. Tears are the word-less “articulation of our grief, the wording of our desire.” Some would say that our tears are the “only way into the heart.” And therefore, tears are a great gift.

While our tears reflect our surrender, our conversion, our turning to God, they also point us to new patterns of learning and living.

When we let go, with tears, we share something of ourselves with another. Letting it go means sharing. “Love learns to share things.”[15] There’s a literal side to “letting go.” One who is practised in letting go spiritually, emotionally, will also let go materially. We release and surrender whatever we’ve been grasping onto tightly in our hearts. 

Ultimately our tears symbolize an opening to new life. They speak of a promise. As Jesus’ tears promised resurrection, our tears signify the journey to rebirth and healing. 

“When we admit our hopelessness and desperation, when we recognize that we have ‘hit rock bottom’ in ourselves as well as in our relationships with people and with God, we also discover the compassion of a God” who became vulnerable on the cross. When we can’t any longer, God will.

Tears open upon the wound, and ironically God enters through this very wound and brings healing to the soul and to the world. God enters through the wound in our heart not just to comfort, but more to identify completely with us in an act of infinite compassion.

The Passion of Christ is therefore the Com-Passion of God. God has undergone the vulnerability of death on a cross. The more profound and intense our tears, the more abundant God’s eternal mercy. The deeper the abyss of our human brokenness, the greater the grace of heavenly compassion.

On this last mountain—the Mount of Olives—we witness Jesus’ tears. We pray with him, and in him. And in our surrender and release, we too await with hope the sure promise of a new way before us.

[1] I invite you to listen to a 13-minute podcast episode featuring Jeff Dafler, a recovering alcoholic and author of the book Psobriety: A Journey of Recovery through the Psalms. In the podcast, Jeff takes a look at Psalm 88, and discusses what he calls “the gift of desperation,” which allows those struggling to move toward hope and redemption.

[2] The Twelve Steps

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[4] Thérèse to Sister Geneviève, December 24, 1896, in Thérèse of Lisieux: General Correspondence, vol.2, 1890-1897, trans. John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1988), p.1038.

[5] Matthew 26:30

[6] John 11:35

[7] Luke 19:41

[8] Luke 22:44; see also Matthew 26:37-38 and Mark 14:33

[9] Psalm 130:1; 31:9

[11] Isaiah 50:6-7.

[12] Psalm 31:16

[13] John Chryssavgis, Chapter Seven “Silence and Tears” In the Heart of the Desert, Revised; The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (World Wisdom, 2008).

[14] Cited in Iain McGilChrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), p.257.

[15] John Chryssavgis, ibid., Chapter Eighteen “Encountering God”

The fifth mountain; Letting it go (sermon by Martin Malina, Passion Sunday 2023)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s