Category Archives: Exile and Restoration

The tears of the world

Biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor (Lamentations and the Tears of the World, 2002) sees the poetry of Lamentations as simultaneously an act of truth, of hope, of justice, of resistance and of wholeness. The people speak the truth of their situation to God and hold out hope that God still hears them. They come to terms with their despair, losses, and anger so that they can regain full humanity, release their energies for doing good, and live in community with others.

Their tears allow for healing. They expose wounds and painful memories, but therein lies the possibility of change.

“Expression of pain is essential to prayer,” O’Connor says. “It is that simple and that difficult. By telling the truth of its world to God, Lamentations becomes a school for prayer.”

The last verse, is fearsome, “a nightmare of abandonment, like a child’s terror that the only ones who can protect her and give her a home have rejected her forever.”

 For now you have indeed rejected us, and in full measure turned your wrath against us. (5:22)

Speaking truth to God, O’Connor says, “can seem unthinkable, because God already knows, or because God may not care, or because God appears to be the cause of the trouble in the first place.

“But as in any relationship, not speaking truth to God causes a dwindling of mutuality and an expansion of anger, resentment, and alienation. Pray anyway.”


Divine anger in Lamentations

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem

My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms. (Lam 2:11-12)

No one was spared at the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy City. God vent his anger on Judah. Blame lay with the princes, priests, and false prophets, who had encouraged pagan practices and rejection of the one God. But all suffered, even women, infants, and the elderly.

All her people groan as they search for bread …(1:11)
Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets …(2:20)

In this short book of five personal and communal laments, we have anonymous  eyewitness accounts of defeat by the Babylonians, deportation, and desolation. We come away certain of their truth. And we realize that the Old Testament comprises real stories of real people. God was at work in the events of that time, and he is at work in the events of our time.

Lamentations reveals how a devastated people worked through their painful reality, remained faithful to Yahweh, and sought some meaning of the suffering. God did not rejoice in their affliction. He had forgiven his people before. There was hope that he would do so again.

Tradition once held that Jeremiah authored Lamentations, but later scholars determined it was written over several decades. While passionate in tone, expressing chaos and suffering, loneliness, fear, shame, sickness, and grief, these laments were highly structured. Three are acrostics, with each verse beginning with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. They differ in style and rhythm. It is possible they were sung in liturgical setting; it is certain they were later used in annual rituals to remember the destruction of Jerusalem.

“Out of the controlled literary form,” writes scholar James A. Fischer, “comes a theological insight. God can be faced and prayed to in all the divine anger and stony silence. Grief and bitterness can be surmounted to arrive at repentance and acceptance. When history has become unendurable, faith still endures.” (Collegeville Commentary, 804).

Christians associate Lamentations with the passion of Christ and read from the book during Holy Week’s Liturgy of the Hours.

Hard hearts and broken hearts

One more concept from People of God that lingers with me: the broken heart. It means a humble and contrite spirit—essentially a heart open to God. A return to the heart (see previous post) does not take place without some experience of brokenness.

LeClerc makes the point that hard hearts are all too common in today’s world: Life with its struggles for priorities, its ambitions, its fears, and its desire to succeed and dominate can harden hearts and allow aggression and resentment to accumulate within … And the worst hardening is not that of one’s feelings. It is rather the steely, cold, and withering harshness of intelligence.” We pride ourselves on self-reliance and close ourselves in a small world. (Taken to an extreme, this would be a form of atheism.)

A broken heart, often experienced in crisis, shatters that world. We are dazzled and wounded by the holiness of God. The cracks in the heart allow the spirit of God and his living, healing waters to flow through. Only then, says LeClerc, when we allow ourselves to be dispossessed of self-sufficiency and the will to power, can we rediscover our true selves in communion with God and the world.

I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the stony heart from their bodies, and replace it with a natural heart.

Ezekiel 11:19 (NAB)

Return to the heart

When it was night time in the soul of Israel, the exiles had only one recourse, according to the prophets: Return to the heart.

“Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” (Ezekiel 18:31)

“Remember this, return to your heart, remember things long past.” (Isaiah 46:8-9)

It’s a decision we all may have to make one day in our own crisis of spirit. “It is from the heart and the heart alone that life can begin again,” says People of God in the Night author Eloi LeClerc. “When everything is lost, the heart remains.”

What does it mean to return to the heart? To get in touch with our deepest being. To reawaken our truest self from our past life.

The process starts with realization of our utter dependence on God. We are stripped of all illusion that we are in control of our lives. Everything we are, everything we have, everything we achieve is through God. This may involve deep psychic pain, like the deportees from Judah—or an extended period of wandering, like the Israelites in the desert. Humbled and vulnerable, we begin to develop trust and rediscover hope.

We roll back our memories to a time of innocence, wonderment, and a yearning toward something greater. We open ourselves to the unknown. Our conscience awakens and we respond to God’s call with youthful fervor. Within our hearts, our deepest reality, we choose to follow where God leads and rediscover ourselves in the process.

Exile and the crisis of maturity

the biblical experience of exile is one of the most radical experiences that humanity has ever undergone.

People of God in the Night, by Eloi LeClerc, O.F.M.

Our summer assignment for Year 3 proved to be a slim little book with emotional impact. People of God in the Night introduces the theme of the exile experience from the point of view of those taken captive and living in Assyria. For generations they hold hope for their return to the Promised Land – until the southern kingdom is also defeated. The Babylonians not only forcibly remove leading citizens of Judah—anyone with the wealth or influence to mount resistance–they destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. Those in exile are shaken to their core. “All the stars have gone out at once. In their place, infinite emptiness.”

I looked to the earth, to see a formless waste; to the heavens and their light had gone. (Jer 4:23)

“No one can go through such distress without falling into a bottomless despair,” the author writes, “unless one encounters at the bottom of the abyss an indestructible hope.” With the exile, the faith of the people of God is broken down and rebuilt on a new foundation.

Our instructor, Jim McGill, compared the two formative experiences of Judaism, exodus and exile, to stages in one’s life.

The exodus, or the wandering in the wilderness, resembles the experience of adolescence or young adulthood. The outcome is uncertain, the experience may be traumatic, but there is great possibility ahead. Possibly even adventure. One is in the processing of learning or of becoming something. It’s a moment of discovery.

The exile experience he likened to maturity and a midlife crisis. Adults achieve a certain amount of security or status, and suddenly it all vanishes. There may be outside forces involved, but there are internal failures for which they must accept blame. The experience is frightening. It’s the great fear of those who no longer feel sure of anything. (Much as all Americans felt on September 11, 2001.)

This is the dark night of the Israelites in exile. Ultimately, however, they find God present even in their despair. What develops is the birth of faith as trust. They undergo a transformative experience.

As with Jacob’s epic struggle with an angel, however, the change comes at great cost. They walk away limping.