Recently, I had a lengthy talk with a friend of mine who is a Catholic feminist. Articulate and not afraid to express her anger, she talked openly about her pain. She is frustrated; frustrated with inequality in the church, frustrated that she can never be ordained. The tears flowed freely; she wanted to leave the church she had grown up in, but something held her back.
A day later, quite by chance as I was doing a marriage interview, a young woman about to be married spoke tearfully about the same pain. She, too, was considering leaving the church. In telling their stories, both commented that what was really pushing them to consider leaving the church was the pain they experienced while attending the Eucharist. Both spoke of how, especially while at Eucharist, they filled with pain, anger and bitterness and were reduced to tears. Superficially, one might conclude that their pain is most acute at Eucharist because a man, a male, presides there. This however, I submit, is a secondary explanation. Their pain touches on something deeper, on something that must send a signal to the whole church. The pain they are experiencing, irrespective of the fact that it is mixed with other pains, is the pain of the prophet.
Scripture states that prophets die somewhere between the altar and sanctuary. Given that, should it be so surprising that people will experience their deepest pains at liturgy? Given that, too, the church had best be looking at and listening to those who feel killed at Eucharist, namely, those who have to die a little to stand in the sanctuary. For the sake of the church and its health, we had best embrace those persons and this pain…and we had better tell those persons how important it is that they not leave us. Both women I mentioned earlier were seriously considering leaving because they were convinced that this kind of pain at Eucharist indicates that it is best that they leave. However, as I suggested earlier, their pain is prophetic. It indicates that something is amiss, but amiss with the whole body, not just with one individual. Their pain also indicates that the Eucharist, in fact, is effective. By its very nature, it is meant to be a place of anguish as well as a place of celebration. The Eucharist is meant to break us open, to break us down, to grind and transubstantiate us into one community of love. Since we come to Eucharist far from united, each of us trapped in his or her own narcissism and selfishnesses, we need to be broken down before unity and community can take place. This doesn’t happen without pain and anguish.
However, it is not necessarily those who feel the most anguish who most need to be broken down or changed. Their pain indicates that there is something wrong in the body. I am heartened in the faith, even if not delighted emotionally, when I hear of somebody who fills with anguish at Eucharist. It means that s/he is sincere; that s/he has deep roots within the Eucharist community, and that the Eucharist is still working. And these, the ones who fill with pain, need be specially embraced and listened to. Those who feel oppressed, excluded, and who die (in whatever way) in the sanctuary are most often the prophetic voices even if they themselves are inarticulate. Their pain is not.
Karl Barth once stated that, in the incarnation, God descends, moving from “height to the depth, from victory to defeat, from riches to poverty, from triumph to suffering, from life to death.” In those who suffer, God is revealed… and this is nowhere more true than at the Eucharist. Pain is a word. Like God’s spirit it gives expression to what is too deep for words. Pain, accepted without final bitterness and persevered in, is prophecy. It’s God’s voice in a calloused church and world. It comes from conscience and speaks to conscience.
In the Eucharist, among other things, the passion and death of Christ are being re-enacted. Obviously, those who are suffering the most and who are doing some dying are the Christ figures. That is why it is so important those who feel like these women, those who fill with pain and tears at the Eucharist, remain in the church and remain at the Eucharist. Without prophetic tears, we grow ever more deaf.
And prophets die somewhere between altar and sanctuary. But their groan is a word, a voice, that cannot be killed.