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In Defense of Bitter Lamentations

March 21, 2018


Most of the sacred music in my childhood church— Our Lady of Czestochowa, a small Polish church in Massachusetts—was joyful. The words were frequently in Latin or Polish, but the melodies of the “Gloria” (sung over the ceaseless ringing of bells and gongs) and “Maryjo, Królowo Polski” (Mary, Queen of Poland) beautifully conveyed the triumph and peace of the light of faith, even at a time when I didn’t fully feel it or understand it.

But there were times when the music very consciously turned to the shadow side of that light, especially during Lent. Then the church would fill up with a very different sound: that of anguish and sadness. “Gorzkie Żale” (Bitter Lamentations) is an eighteenth century Polish devotion that reflects on the Passion of Christ and the sorrows of Mary. The opening words of the central hymn, translated to English, are as dark as you might expect:

Let us pray in contemplation,
While we sing this lamentation.
With eyes tearful, hearts repenting,
Let us grieve with no relenting.
Lo, the sun and stars are fading;
sadness, nature all pervading.
Host of Angels, sadly weeping,
Who’ll explain their deep bereaving?
Mountains, cliffs and rocks are crumbling;
Sealed tombs open, loudly thundering.
Why such sorrow, desolation
Overwhelming all creation?

Something about that really got my attention. But as the years went by, I realized that my little Polish church was the exception, not the rule. This kind of gothic music about sin, sacrifice, and suffering was scarce in most churches, even during penitential seasons. The unwritten rule for music was the same as for homiletics, religious education, and theology: accentuate the positive. The more sentimental strumming and warbling I heard, the more the plaintive sounds of my home church became a distant memory.

This trend isn’t unique to Catholicism. The slogan for one of the most popular contemporary Christian music radio stations today is “Positive and Encouraging.” On the face of it, this is a harmless invitation to uplift heavy-laden people; but it’s also implicitly a guarantee against any heavy-laden songs. When it comes to music, American Christians so instinctively lean toward the positive, bright, and sweet that we’ve all but banished the negative, dark, and bitter.

Popular music, on the other hand, is awash in dark and sad music. Turn on the radio at random and you have a fifty-fifty shot of hearing something depressing. There’s a reason for that: lamentations are natural to us as human beings. They acknowledge the hard realities of human life and offer a catharsis. Suffering, doubt, pain, loneliness, illness, confusion, sin, death—the many tragic elements of life—are very real, and everyone eventually experiences them, sometimes to an unimaginable degree. Lamentations give us a way to confront and deal with them before they confront and deal with us. As Walker Percy observed, art that names death-in-life is “a thousand times more life-affirming than all the life-affirming self-help books about me being okay and you being okay and everybody being okay when in fact everybody is not okay, but more than likely in deep trouble.”

And because Christianity offers a radical humanism, lamentations also express very real elements of the Christian story. To be sure, Christianity is grounded in the good news, which blossoms into “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). But from the Garden of Genesis, to the Wisdom books, to the Passion narratives of the Gospels, Scripture is also keenly aware of the fallenness of the world, the sacrifice required to set things right, and the everyday struggles of the Christian pilgrimage. The liturgical tradition of the Catholic Church is likewise acquainted with grief. The Eucharist is a joyful meal of fellowship and communion; but it also re-presents the sacrifice of the cross—not just figuratively or symbolically, but actually. Lamentations can keep these elements of the Christian story in view, and far from dimming its light, make it more radiant. They remind us of the dramatic depth of Gods love for us, a love that transforms our worst darkness and invites us to do the same for whatever darkness we meet in the world. It could be my formative experiences in my church, or the mingling of Polish pessimism and Irish sorrow in my veins, or just my own peculiar personality, but I find weightier sacred music uplifting and edifying for just this reason, and not only during Lent—e.g., Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle”Mozart’s and Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa”; Samuel Barber“Agnus Dei (Adagio for Strings)”; the darker moments of Handel’s Messiah (“He Was Despised,” “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs”); and of course, that haunting hymn from “Gorzkie Żale.” Even Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist and atheist, named Stravinskys Symphony of Psalms and MozartRequiem as favorite pieces of music.

Anything that more authentically presents both the human experience and the Christian thing is perforce going to be more evangelically compelling as well. After the popular YouTuber Lizzie Reezay (“Lizzie’s Answers”) announced her conversion to Catholicism, she pointed out that one of the (many) things that appealed to her about the Church was its emphasis on Old Testament lamentations like the Psalms. It conveyed to her the important message of “staying faithful to God, remembering how he’s intervened in the past,” even in the midst of the great suffering and oppression. 

There’s a great scene in Walk the Line where Johnny Cash’s band auditions for a record executive by singing a predictable gospel song about the peace of Jesus within. “Well Satan can’t make me doubt it,” Cash drones, “it’s real and I’m gonna shout it.” The executive stops them dead in their tracks. “I don’t believe you…You know exactly what I’m telling you. We’ve already heard that song a hundred times, just like that, just like how you was singing it.” The executive challenges Cash: If he were hit by a truck and lay dying in a gutter, would he sing this banal, pacifying song? Or would he sing something more raw and real? “That’s the kind of song,” he says matter-of-factly, “people want to hear.” The Man in Black’s response? “Folsom Prison Blues.” There’s great insight in that exchange.

Of course, evangelization doesn’t rise and fall on how the liturgy looks and sounds. There are more pressing issues to confront in that department, and the so-called “liturgy wars” are finally a secondary and internal debate. And I’m certainly not suggesting that it would be better if churches were dark, gloomy places filled with dark, gloomy people.

But the fact remains that wherever there is human life, there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Suffering is elemental to being human, and sacrifice elemental to being a Christian. “Christ was crucified on earth,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “and the Church is crucified in time.” So why not make some room for lamentation? Young people aren’t leaving churches that sound too solemn and negative and down on human nature; that’s a bogeyman of ages past. They’re leaving, in record numbers, churches that have been trying very hard to sound positive and encouraging all their lives. So why not, if only for a few days a year, make the walls thunder with the sounds of bitter lamentation? It might just get their attention.