“You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure.” Psalm 79 (80):6.
When I started writing about the saints many years ago, a spiritual wildfire swept through my life, leaving many things charred and burned to the ground, a great clearing-out that made way for buried seeds to germinate, sprout, and grow unhindered.
One thing that changed at that time was my understanding of the role of feelings in the spiritual life. To that point, I thought of saints as “controlled” individuals, who kept a tight lid on their emotions. And in keeping with this view of holiness, I believed that I had to repress a lot of what went on inside of me. I loathed my moments of weakness, when I let another human being see how truly sad or vulnerable I was. God, I thought, does not have much patience for people who are always “letting it all hang out.”
When the writings of the saints became my daily bread, I began to see how wrong this take on the emotional life is. In John Chrysostom’s passionate sermons, Jerome’s irate diatribes, and Thérèse of Lisieux’s heartfelt letters to family members, I found genuine, deep, freely-expressed human emotion. Over time, the words of the saints freed me to begin to speak to others more frankly, to pray to God with a new intensity. My old view was destroyed, making way for the gift of my own humanity.
The saints are not afraid to be who they are, to have genuine reactions. I am not saying that every saint shouted his feelings from the mountaintops or exhibited them without restraint. Discretion is a virtue, after all, and it is important to be aware of what we say because words can have a lasting impact. But this attention to how emotion is expressed is entirely different from censoring the emotions themselves.
In the two saints before us today, Elizabeth Ann Seton (our patroness) and Ephrem, the Syrian Doctor, we have great examples of the emotional life well-lived.
Ephrem was born at Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Turkey) around the year 306. In his youth he studied with James, who became bishop of Nisibis. Ephrem and James founded a theological school where Ephrem taught for many years. At this time, Nisibis lay on the border between two great empires—Persia and Rome. The city was invaded three times by Persia in Ephrem’s lifetime until at last Rome relinquished it in 363. A time of persecution of Christians then began, and Ephrem and most of the Christian population fled Nisibis and settled at Edessa (modern Urfa).
Ephrem sought refuge in a cave, where he composed teachings, homilies, and majestic hymns. Yet, he came frequently into the city to teach and preach. Edessa, it turned out, was “war-torn” in an entirely different way from Nisibis. The city was a center of heretical teachings—and in his time, Ephrem, who was ordained a deacon, preached and wrote hymns in response to the major heresies.
According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Ephrem went around crying. Yes, crying!—weeping bitter tears. He lived constantly moved by what was going on outside him—the war, persecution, civil strife—and the sorrow it provoked inside him. He cried for his own sin and the sin of others. He cried for the sufferings of others. He cried that God might hear his cry. He was sad—desperately so—and he “let it all hang out.” Ephrem showed us how to let emotions well up and how they can be put to great use, channeled for God’s own purposes. In Ephrem’s case, emotion engendered exquisite poetry that earned him the nickname “Harp of the Holy Spirit.” Others have called Ephrem the “Dante” of his time.
But my point here is not to extol the beauty of Ephrem’s poetry but to emphasize how it came into being—as the fruit of a man letting himself grieve unrestrainedly for many years. He was not afraid to be deeply touched and to let others see his need. In fact, it was this sadness that became his daily offering to God, empowering his poetry and prayer. When the Church declared Ephrem a Doctor in 1920, she was acknowledging the eloquence of these pleas.
But such a free emotional life is not in any way limited to ancient, Middle Eastern poets. Elizabeth Ann Seton showed the same capacity to live with emotional depth in front of God and her fellow human beings. Her outlets were her journals and her numerous missives to others. In letter after letter, she poured out the truth of her heart to those whom God had given to her. With family and friends, clergy and lay, men and women, Elizabeth was consistently and fervently authentic.
Perhaps no moment in Elizabeth’s life shows her freedom to express her true feelings as the period after her daughter Annina’s death. By this time, Elizabeth was a vowed religious superior and a veteran of deathbed scenes. She had lost many loved ones. But in the wake of Annina’s death, grief was mingled unexpectedly with despair: she was tortured with the thought that Annina was not going to heaven, that death was the end, and that mother and daughter were parted forever. She confessed to nearly losing her mind over it.
Elizabeth’s anguish hit its low point a few months after Annina’s death, upon a visit to her grave. She laid the whole scene out in a letter to her spiritual guide and friend, Father Gabriel Brute: how at the very moment she was standing at the grave struggling with her fears, she spied a large snake slithering through the earth on top of it. Her motherly anger was stoked, and she went straight for the creature, took it by the throat and hurtled it beyond the garden wall. And she confided to Fr. Brute the almost unthinkable thoughts that overtook her in the moment: “Oh, my dear ones, companions of worms and reptiles—and the beautiful Soul… Where?”
Entrusted with this frank confession, Father Brute was deeply moved. He sought to reassure her grief-torn soul, and slowly Elizabeth, helped by his guidance, began to climb out of the emotional pit she had found herself in. But what is so amazing is her frankness. Nothing was held back; she was not scandalized by her own emotions, nor did she repress them. She let them be what they were, lived her full humanity and offered it to God. And Elizabeth’s words in that letter have become, to our great wonder, a source of courage and solace for us today.
Have we not seen, in these last weeks, the anguish of violence, the horror of the deaths of our children? We need to be, like Elizabeth and Ephrem, free to let ourselves weep, to cry out to the Lord, and to let Him tenderly heal us.
In prayer and friendship, the saints live freely. Let us ask them for help.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.
Image: Public Domain
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