Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Walking Away Out Of Sorrow” (5 of 6)

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[Fifth in a six-part Lenten Series on Mystical Images]

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Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

What do we do when we’re depressed? What’s our temptation when a dream is shattered, when we feel betrayed, and when it seems like the trust we’ve shown someone was childish naivetŽ?

Generally the temptation is to gather what pride we have left and walk away, away from that person, away from that place of rejection, away from the humiliation, and away from our former dream, all the while saying to ourselves: “I’ll never trust in this way again! I’ve been burned, taken in, I now know the lesson!”

And, as we walk away from the place where we got hurt, what do we invariably walk towards?

We walk towards human consolation, towards compensation, towards something that looks like it will alleviate the hurt, soothe our wounded pride, or at least distract us from the pain. Sometimes, in fact, we’re so wounded that what we walk towards is simple bitterness and despair. We unconsciously turn our backs on energy, family, community, happiness, faith, trust, and God. Life isn’t worth living, why try!

In Luke’s Gospel, we see this in the story of two, dispirited, disciples walking from away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus on Easter Sunday morning, unaware that Jesus had risen from the dead. Luke writes that on the morning of the Resurrection “two disciples were walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus, a village some seven miles away, their faces downcast.”

Every word is pregnant here: For Luke, “Jerusalem” is more than a city. For him, it means the church, it means our faith-dream, and it means the place where Jesus was crucified (the place of pain, betrayal, crucified dreams, humiliation, and shame). On Easter Sunday, he tells us, two disciples were walking away from that, namely, they were leaving the church, leaving their faith dream, and walking away from the place where they felt that dream had ended in shame. Moreover they were walking towards “Emmaus”. What is “Emmaus”?

Scholars tell us that there were several places called Emmaus, but they suspect that the one referred to here was a Roman Spa, a resort of sorts, a place of human consolation, the Las Vegas of that day. Thus, these disciples were doing what we invariably do when we get hurt, walk away from the hurt towards human consolation, towards something will take the pain away or at least distract us from it.

And they were doing this out of depression; their dream had been crucified when Jesus died. Indeed, when they describe their faith to Jesus, they use the past perfect tense: “We had hoped.” Their dream is over, dead. So is their faith.

So this is the scene: Two dejected disciples are leaving the church and walking towards human compensation because their dream has been shattered by the shame and humiliation of the cross. Their dream is over and they are now walking inside the sadness that besets us whenever we feel betrayed, shamed, found to be naive in our trust.

It is because of this sadness that they cannot recognize Jesus when he appears to them on the road. Jesus walks with them and they can’t recognize him. Why?

The answer to that lies in the Agony in the Garden. In Luke’s description of this, when Jesus goes out into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray he tells his disciples: “Watch!” They’re supposed to learn something by watching him. What they were supposed to learn was what Jesus himself learned, or at least learned to accept, in Gethsemane, namely, that there is no other way to glory except through humiliation, no other way to new life except through death, no other way to intimacy except through unspeakable loneliness, and no other way to the light of Easter Sunday except through the darkness of Good Friday.

This is what Jesus had to accept, on his knees and begging for an alternative, in Gethsemane. But, as Luke tells us, after Jesus comes to accept this, he turns towards his disciples and finds them asleep, not out of simple tiredness, but “out of sheer sorrow”. They were too depressed to get the lesson.

This is a mystical image worth meditating. Like these dispirited disciples in Luke’s Gospel, we too, when faced with the kind of pain that brings us to our knees in agony and humiliation, too often are too discouraged and too disheartened to grasp the lesson that’s being taught. We “fall asleep out of sheer sorrow” and then, in our sadness and discouragement, we feel tempted to walk away from what’s hurting us and move instead towards some human consolation, towards something in the world that promises earthly compensation to replace our crucified dream of faith.

The good news is that Jesus finds us on that road and turns us around so that, like the disciples, we never actually get to Emmaus. Instead, after re-reading the scriptures and breaking the bread, we regain our vision and our idealism and find the courage to again return to our faith and to our church.