“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
– “The Uses of Sorrow”: Mary Oliver
“Why did God let this happen to us?” the young Filipino asked, covering her face with her hands as she sobbed.
Speaking on a stage in front of some 30,000 young people as part of a meeting between Pope Francis and Filipino youth in 2015, the young girl’s intense query visibly affected Francis.
Putting aside a text he had prepared for the occasion in order to respond directly to the young woman, Francis answered her:
“The nucleus of your question almost doesn’t have a reply…only when we too can cry about the things that you said are we able to come close to replying to that question.”
“Why did children suffer so much?” he asked. “Why do children suffer?”
“Certain realities in life we only see through eyes that are cleansed through our tears.”
Each of us Catholics, on our faith journey, no doubt also has received, as Mary Oliver says: a box full of darkness.
Often, we struggle against this ‘box of darkness’ because inside it are our own wounds and vulnerabilities.
It can certainly be a long and painful journey for each of us to finally accept what amounts to a personally delivered ‘box of darkness’ or if you like, our own ‘agony in the Garden’.
When it’s ‘delivered’, sometimes all you can do is to weep bitter tears and ‘cling to the rock’, like Jesus.
The great biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, reminds us however that the Psalms (especially the lament Psalms) that many of us pray daily are a great resource as we live this tender mystery.
He writes: “The laments are refusals to settle for the way things are. They are acts of relentless hope that believes no situation falls outside of Yahweh’s capacity for transformation.”
Yes, we need to learn from Pope Francis as he paradoxically teaches us what some call the ‘Gospel of tears.’ We need to grieve and mourn and “see through eyes that are cleansed with our tears”.
For tears can ‘purify’ our hearts. One of the Desert Fathers, St Isaac of Nineveh, wrote beautifully of this gift of tears and the resultant heart full of compassion.
“And what is a compassionate heart? … It is a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion … that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment … for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause him harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. He prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God’s likeness.”
Or, as Mary Oliver puts it so beautifully in another of her poems on grief and mourning:
“To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
For “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5).
With thanks to Cindy Wooden & Joshua J. McElwee for their great book and its insights A Pope Francis Lexicon, Liturgical Press (2018), which was the genesis of this article.
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.