The Art of Lament

January Sunrise (2020)

In a previous post, I recommended a couple books for your Lenten reading. Today, I would like to follow up on one of them — When Tears Sing: The Art of Lament in Christian Community by William Blaine-Wallace (Orbis, 2020) All the quotations are taken from this book.

When I prayerfully behold the tear-gassed child screaming at our nation’s southeast border, I bestow upon her the authority to reorder my priorities. (p. xix)

Reading When Tears Sing certainly re-ordered my priorities and opened my eyes and heart to the need for communal lament. Lament, according to Blaine-Wallace, is the deep relation among those who are broken and bent. It is the art of “life-in-relation amid both the blatant and subtle clutches of life-the-way-it-really-is.” We usually think of lament as individual sorrow, but we do not often pray lament as community, as being a part of others’ trauma and sorrow. Our world today certainly gives us reasons to lament.

We are sometimes afraid of tears – our own and those of others – or embarrassed by how easily we cry. However, tears, words, sighs, and other embodied utterances are the way we go on together in times of trauma or sorrow. A spirituality of tears privileges vulnerability over suffering, relation over autonomy. (p. xxii) We don’t have to go through sorrow or loss by ourselves.

Q. What are the characteristics of lament? (chapter 2)

  • Lament requires two voices, one to give testimony, the other to be witness
  • Lament is a relational act in which testifier and witness are both transformed
  • Lament is a lens through which to explore salvation history
  • Lament is starter dough for social movements
  • Lament has five phases: wailing, lament, solidarity, joy, and justice
Banyan Trees (2020)

Wailing erupts now and then in each of our lives. It is the noise of our cultural malaise. It is the ongoing and unending experience of trauma victims. (p. 24) Our challenge is to witness the narratives of trauma victims, to be still and stay present, and to resist helping them fill the hole. Our challenge is to reconnect with our neighbors near and far to strengthen us for greater and more consequential relations with a world groaning in distress. We are often overwhelmed by a world in distress or feel powerless to help transform the world. Communal lament invites us to pare down large laments to a size we can manage in order that they may incite greater agency for action now.

Q. How do we stay in a witnessing position when all hell is breaking loose in and around us?

  • Refract — just as we can make light change direction when it enters at an angle, we can refract suffering into dimensions we can prayerfully hold
  • Be still — slow down, be still, and open our hearts to who and what matters
  • Wait patiently – realize that God is not on our clock
  • Stay curious – open up relational space between the heart of our suffering God and us
  • Cloak suffering – wrap yourself in a shawl as a symbolic act of being wrapped in love

Being cloaked in love, regularly, opens our hearts wider for lamentational relation, allowing us to see more fully the eternal now that behold us. (p. 97) This idea of cloaking suffering made explicit for me the meaning and purpose of prayer shawl ministries.

Memorial Rose

Q. How do we practice lament? (chapter 6)

  • Silence – respect for those who suffer imposes a silence, beholding is the beginning place of relation
  • Listening – receive what others are able and willing to share, empathy does not need to be spoken to be conveyed
  • Alterity – put a face on those who suffer
  • Hospitality – construct the idea of unconditional hospitality
  • Reiteration – tell and re-tell our stories to gain a new perspective
  • Marking absence – mark the places where suffering and loss occurred
  • Curiosity – pray Jesus’ big questions: Who do you say that I am? (Luke 9:20) Do you want to be made well? (John 5:6) What is your name? (Luke 8:30)

Finally, a prayer written by the author:

May I not ask questions I think I know the answer to

May I ask only questions that emanate from my neighbor’s utterances

May I not offer words when I have none to give

Help me to distrust hunches

Help me to accompany, not deliver. Amen. (p. 123)


Q. Do any of these ideas resonate with your ideas and experiences?

Q. What are your stories of the need for communal lament?



2 thoughts on “The Art of Lament

    1. Thank you, Fran, for your note. The reflections are all William Blaine-Wallace. In highlighting what resonates with me, I run the risk of quoting him out of context. Still, there is much to ponder . . .

      Liked by 1 person

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