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Center for Action and Contemplation

Public Lament

Sunday, April 16, 2023

How lonely sits the city, that once was full of people…. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks. —Lamentations 1:1, 2 

The Psalms and the books of the Hebrew prophets honor the deep, public grief of lamentation as holy prayer. Brian McLaren reflects on Jeremiah’s prophetic message and our need to lament today: 

The work of prophets is to warn, to warn people of the inevitable consequences of their foolish or immoral actions. It will be the end of the world as you know it, the prophets say, unless you rethink your current assumptions, values, and priorities, unless you become ready to change your way of life. Usually, the people don’t listen.  

Jeremiah lived long enough to see the result in 586 [BCE]. And it caused him to write this poem of public lament. Why is public lament so important? Well, imagine you’re a Hebrew slave in Babylon. Whenever you think of what you’ve lost, you weep. Your tears keep alive the folly of your people in not listening to the prophet’s warnings. Your tears keep alive your rage against the cruelty and domination of the Babylonians. Your tears keep alive a desire for change to regain your freedom, to return some day to your homeland. Guess who doesn’t want you to feel that grief? Guess who wants you to accept your new reality and surrender to it forever? Guess who wants you to put on a happy face in public? Guess who wants to defeat you into emotional numbness rather than emotional aliveness? Your oppressors, those who profit from your compliance, those who want you to be happy and well-adjusted drones in their system. They don’t want you to feel your own pain.  

Think of the prophets of recent decades: Rachel Carson warning of a silent spring, Dr. King warning of America’s unpaid promissory note coming due, César Chávez calling us to stop oppressing and exploiting farmworkers, Pope Francis warning us to hear the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor, Bishop Gene Robinson calling us to see every LGBTQ+ person as God’s beloved child, Dr. William Barber warning us that our national heart needs a moral defibrillator to shock us out of our coma, and Greta Thunberg warning us that the earth is on fire. The prophets warn us, and too few listen; when the inevitable consequences come, the prophets invite us not to let our opportunity pass by without being named, mourned, and lamented. 

Father Richard often defines contemplation as meeting all the reality we can bear. To help us meet and bear reality, the prophets say, mourn privately and lament publicly.… Feel the surge of divine grief, the groaning of the Holy Spirit deep within you, and let those groans of loss become the groans of labor so a better world can be born from our failure, beginning with a better you who is still capable of seeing, and feeling, and meeting all the reality we can bear. 


Adapted from Brian McLaren, “Weeping and Lamentation,” 2023 Daily Meditations: The Prophetic Path, Center for Action and Contemplation, April 1, 2023, video, 8:22.  

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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