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Center for Action and Contemplation

Complaining to God

Monday, April 17, 2023

I live / in the open mindedness / of not knowing enough / about anything. / 
It was beautiful.… / How quietly, / and not with any assignment from us, / 
or even a small hint of understanding, / everything that needs to be done / 
is done. —Mary Oliver, “Luna” 

Father Richard considers lamentation’s spiritual power: 

There is one strong form of biblical prayer that has been almost completely overlooked by the Christian tradition, maybe because it feels more like pre-prayer than what we usually think of as prayer at all. Let’s call it lamentation or grief work, and it is almost perfectly described in the Mary Oliver epigraph above.  

Lamentation prayer is when we sit and speak out to God and one another—stunned, sad, and silenced by the tragedy and absurdity of human events. It might actually be the most honest form of prayer. It takes great trust and patience … so I think it is actually profound prayer, but most of us have not been told that we could, or even should, “complain” to God. I suspect we must complain like Job, Judith, and Jeremiah, or we do not even know what to pray for—or how to pray. Or we do not suffer the necessary pain of this world, the necessary sadness of being human. 

About one-third of the Psalms are psalms of “lament,” but they have been the least used in Catholic and Protestant liturgies. We think, perhaps, they express sinful anger or negativity, when grief and loss are actually something quite different. We think they make us appear weak, helpless, and vulnerable, and most of us don’t want to go there. We think, perhaps, they show a lack of faith, whereas they are probably the summit of faith. So we quickly resort to praise and thanksgiving, even when it is often dishonest emotion. We forget that Jesus called weeping a “blessed” state (Matthew 5:4). We forget that only one book of the Bible is named after an emotion: Jeremiah’s book of “Lamentations.” [1] 

Peace activist Father John Dear asks what Jesus’ teaching “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” might mean for us in times of global injustice: 

“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus [says]. Millions of people in our world mourn because their loved ones have been killed by war, starvation, or injustice. Do we grieve for those who die in war? For those incinerated by nuclear weapons and bombs? For the [many thousands] who die each day from starvation? Do we allow the sorrow of the world’s poor to touch our hearts? Do we look the suffering of the world in the eye … or do we turn away in denial and thus postpone our own inevitable confrontation with grief? Jesus promises that, as we mourn the death of our sisters and brothers around the world, God consoles us, and we find a peace—even a joy that we did not know possible. [2] 


[1] Richard Rohr, “Complaining to God,” Radical Grace 19, no. 1 (January-February-March 2006): 3.  

[2] John Dear, “Blessed Are the Nonviolent,” Radical Grace 19, no. 1 (January-February-March 2006): 12. 

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—McEl Chevrier, Untitled. Margi Ahearn, Exercise on Grief and Lamentation. McEl Chevrier, Untitled. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image. 

On retreat, the CAC staff used watercolors to connect to our collective grief. This is one of the watercolor paintings that came from that exercise.  

Story from Our Community:

Some time ago I had a conversation with God. I said, “I’m done with the head stuff. I want to feel my relationship with you.” And right away God replied, “Pay attention to your tears.” I honestly heard those words and was stunned by the immediacy of the response. And when tears come—especially when tears come— I feel God’s presence and promise to walk with us—all of us— in our tears. This has helped me deeply trust Barbara Holmes’s message that lamentation is a healing practice, and the most honest form of prayer. I imagine the quantum potential in our collective lament and am certain we are not alone. Thank you for this. —Julie P. 

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