June 26, 2014

By The Reverend Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner
Director of Spiritual Life

There is something very powerful about communities that know when and how to lament.

There is something very powerful about communities that know when and how to lament.

Fear, righteous anger, sadness in the face of loss: these are considered “natural” emotions in the Jewish and Christian traditions. To paraphrase John of Damascus, writing in the 8th century — of course the soul fears when the body is threatened. As a living being, by its very nature the soul is inclined towards “those things that support existence” and “shrinks” from their loss.

And yet, sometimes, due to our upbringings or past experiences, we may not share John’s sense of the “soul” as “naturally” and “innocently” passionate. Maybe we got the message, growing up, that angry women are unattractive women. Or we were told that “only babies cry.” So we have gotten into the habit of masking our emotions, acting out in anger, rather than acknowledging feelings of vulnerability, or insisting that we are “fine” when really we are not.

This week in Constructive Meditation campers will analyze our culture’s attitudes towards emotions like anger and sadness to see if our comfort level with these changes as people age or according to people’s gender. They will then learn how to write a communal lament in the ancient Israelite mode. They will —

  • Name something upsetting to them.
  • Accuse God or the Universe of turning a blind eye to their affliction.
  • Question God or the Universe as to why this is the case and how long this neglect is to continue.
  • Describe the impact of their affliction on their bodies, minds, spirits or relationships.
  • Petition God or the Universe for help, guidance or justice.
  • State what they intend to do, in turn, for God or the Universe.
  • Praise God or the Universe for past benefits and future gifts.

There is something very powerful about communities that know when and how to lament. The human longing to be seen and treated as an individual and not to be reduced to mere happenstance is a beautiful and sacred thing. Whether our affliction is due to war, cancer or someone else’s misplaced hostility, lamentation reminds us — it is okay to get upset when life feels unjust. This is what it means to be a human being. Communities that lament together are communities that know how to handle the pain and sorrow of their individual members, without requiring them to mask this pain behind more “acceptable” feelings or behaviors.

A lot of children (and adults) come home from school or work with stomach aches from a long day spent not admitting to anyone, not even themselves, how anxious or upset they are. In doing so, they may be playing by the rules of their school or workplace. But perhaps the soul or spirit has its own rules with something to teach us about ourselves and our value as individuals. The Ancient Israelites seemed to think so. Culver’s “Constructive Meditators” will see what they think this Sunday at 9:00.

Editor’s Note: Constructive Meditation has been offered to Culver Academies’ students for the last several years. It focuses on building age-appropriate mindfulness skills and fostering wisdom through journaling projects and group activities. These are based on disciplines as diverse as Quaker clearness committees and the study of the sunnah by the Prophet Muhammad. Culver Summer Schools & Camps will be rolling out its version on Sunday. In this article, the first of a series, The Rev. Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner, director of Spiritual Life, describes some of what campers will be doing week-to-week.

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