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A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith
Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: October 17, 2020
By Judy Hoelzeman
St. Edward Church, Little Rock
In 1953, my mother developed a blood clot after childbirth. While my mother lay close to death, my father went to the hospital chapel and prayed, “Not my will but thine be done.” My mother lived. My father told her later that voicing that prayer was the hardest thing he ever had to do.
Like my father many years ago, people all over the world today are facing terrifying situations, especially those related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the most painful nightmare falls on those separated from loved ones in other cities and countries, or in assisted living and health facilities and hospitals.
During his crisis, my father prayed a traditional prayer. We might consider praying a lament: a personal, utterly honest prayer searching for understanding and peace in the midst of terrible suffering.
Cry out your spiritual and mental pain, just as you would cry with physical pain. If you’ve come to doubt God’s presence and feel alone, express it. Voicing doubt can give us a more realistic, less naïve understanding of prayer and move us closer to God.
Laments are common in the Bible. They make up one-third of the Psalms. They are found in the books of Job and Jeremiah. And the entire Book of Lamentations addresses the misery and betrayal felt after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The four examples which follow show the honesty and even desperation of laments.
Jesus himself prays parts of Psalm 22 as he nears a horrible death on the cross. (My God), “why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?” (Psalms 22:2a) If Jesus felt abandoned by God, the two must have known each other well. After all, no one can be abandoned by a stranger.
After the Israelites are defeated and exiled from Jerusalem, the psalmist prays: “Awake! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Rise up! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face; why forget our pain and misery?” (Psalm 44:24) The author repeatedly asks why, much like we do. “Why God?” is a prayer in itself.
Jeremiah grieves over the people’s suffering. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jeremiah 8:22). He asks sarcastically why there is no cure for his people, when Gilead is known for the healing power of its balsam trees.
Though he is known as a righteous and innocent man, Job suffers unbearably, losing his family, property and health. He wishes God had never created him. “Perish the day on which I was born, the night when they said, ‘The child is a boy!’” (Job 3:3-4)
Prayers of lament abandon the safe language of our familiar prayer. They come out of strong emotions and focus on the hard times that preoccupy us and sap our energy. In laments, we present ourselves to God as we actually are in the present moment, not who we should be.
And note that many biblical laments also express optimism and hope. Praying/writing your own lament may help you at this critical time. Cry out your spiritual and mental pain, just as you would cry with physical pain. If you’ve come to doubt God’s presence and feel alone, express it. Voicing doubt can give us a more realistic, less naïve understanding of prayer and move us closer to God.
During this pandemic, and long afterward, we will be faced with suffering we cannot understand. Two Scripture scholars give us good advice. The late Father Carroll Stuhlmueller wrote: “The psalms of lament place the bundle of pain in God’s presence,” and the late Father Demetrius Dumm, OSB, tells us to remember that God is present, “even when the good is wrapped in thick, thick mystery.”