“Whose flood of eloquence can suffice to recount the miseries of this life?” When Augustine wrote these words in The City of God, he did so in an attempt to give a Catholic response to contemporaries, Christian and pagan alike, who were shaken by the sack of Rome, who felt that a great social evil threatened to shatter their picture of the world. But his question could as fittingly respond to the catalogue of injustices and social ills brought to greater public attention by advocates of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Our social world does not quake, as Augustine’s did, with the sack of Rome; but there are moments today when the fractures in it appear just as deep.
When faced with these social wounds, it can help to consider that Augustine’s question is more than rhetorical. There is a good to be found in giving voice to our common miseries: the good of lamentation. In what follows, I want to explore some of the ways the Catholic tradition’s practice and understanding of lamentation can help make a constructive response to our shared miseries.
What Is Lament?
Lament is something we humans do individually and collectively, across the borders of religious and cultural differences. It expresses what we could call, following the theologian Paul J. Griffiths, an otherwise attitude. That’s to say, when we lament, we express an attitude in which we wish things were not so. Lament is not the only otherwise attitude: there is regret, remorse, mourning, or contrition, for example. All these attitudes share this common feature: by them, we consider some state of affairs—something that you, or I, or others, or nature has done, now or recently or in the distant past—and we wish it were otherwise. In this way, the otherwise attitudes are marked by what Catholic thought has traditionally called the passion of sorrow, the felt recognition of a present evil. We see that something should not be, that an evil is present—vividly, perhaps, if the evil bears on something close to us—and this felt recognition moves us to express it.
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But what makes an expression of sorrow a lament, as opposed to an expression of regret or contrition? Two things seem to distinguish lament from these other attitudes: first, in lament, there’s no necessary connection to anyone’s wrongdoing or deliberate fault. Lament is silent about whether the cause of the evil is someone else’s wrongdoing, my own, a mere misfortune, or something else entirely. The situation that evokes lament cries out for remedy but not necessarily for repentance and forgiveness, though the need for remedy, repentance, and forgiveness may be braided together.
Second, lament responds to the evil of loss, especially the loss of those goods that are dearest to us, those that lie close to the heart of the human good. Think of the orphaned child wishing his parents were still with him, the survivors of flood or quake or conquest wishing their city were still intact, or the promising athlete wishing disease hadn’t cut his career unexpectedly short. When we lament, what we have in common with these figures is that we wish things were somehow different. What sets lament apart from other attitudes like regret or contrition is that its object need not be something we ourselves have done, or something any other human being has done, either.
I take it for granted that lament is sometimes called for; some things really are lamentable, just as some things really are lovable or fearsome, for example. It is a mark of virtuous people that, other things being equal, they are prepared to recognize these things for what they are and to respond accordingly. This means that when people lament well, their lament gets something right about the world: they wish things were otherwise because they recognize the presence of a genuine evil, something that should not be, something that God permits, that God endures with patience, but that he does not positively will.
For believers, the example of Adam’s fall as recorded in Genesis 3 is instructive. Adam’s act of faithless disobedience is Adam’s, not Peter’s, not mine. Concepts like original sin and the communion of saints may point us to ways in which all human wills are bound up with one another in a metaphysical solidarity, for better or worse. But this doesn’t take away the unique relationship between me and my own deliberate faults that makes them, and only them, a fitting object of my own contrition. I can lament the bad choices of a friend or loved one, but I can’t have contrition for them in the strict sense.
When we lament the lamentable, we do well. We face reality and acknowledge it for what it is. When we fail to do that, when we try to explain away the lamentable as only an apparent evil, for example; or when we try to drown out the experience of sorrow with anger, rushing to point the finger at a ready-made source of our problem, the scapegoat; or when we confuse lament and contrition, we contribute to the lamentable reality by refusing to see things for what they are.
Lament As a Form of Prayer
There is more. For religious believers generally and Catholics in particular, lament will be more than the expression of sorrow or loss. As a form of expression communicated to God, and not only our fellow human beings, lament will take the form of prayer.
For people formed to recognize the mixture of good and evil in the world as the display of God’s glory riven by the wounds of sin, lament will be a principal form of prayer. It won’t be the first or the last form prayer takes; in terms of fundamentality or ultimacy, lament will be outranked by forms of prayer like adoration, praise, thanksgiving, or petition. Nevertheless, while we live here below in the vale of tears, lament will have its place alongside them. We shouldn’t confuse lament with a kind of petition: when we lament, in prayer, we are not yet asking for an evil to be removed or remedied. Rather than ask, lament first and foremost recognizes and acknowledges before God the reality of a present evil perceived. This makes lament the negative double of adoration or praise, which similarly acknowledges the goodness of the Lord and his works.
A look at the biblical record and traditional Catholic practice reveals that the Catholic tradition has a deep respect for our capacity to lament and a deep interest in forming it constructively. Here, as ever, divine grace presupposes its prior work of human nature and heals, perfects, and elevates it. Some examples: we have the laments for Israel in the prophetic books, the laments in the Book of Psalms (by some counts over a third of the psalms); there are the Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah, both as recorded in the Tanakh and as chanted by Catholics, traditionally, at the office of Tenebrae during Holy Week. There are the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, which present the suffering and death of Christ to our meditation, as well as the Stations of the Cross, devotion to the Wounds of Christ, and devotion to the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows and the associated traditional hymn, the Stabat Mater. And then there is Christ’s lament, upon coming within sight of the Holy City: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together . . . but you were unwilling” (Matthew 23:37).
We could multiply these examples. But what bears emphasizing is how these practices of lamentation form a virtuous habit in relation to sorrow by rooting lamentation in a more complete context. For example, consider the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary: they form one part in a cycle of meditations on the life of Christ, a cycle that begins not with cause for lament but with cause for joy in the Annunciation of Christ’s Incarnation (Emmanuel, God-with-us) and ends with cause for hopeful desire in the Coronation of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, the archetype of the unsurpassably happy end to which Catholic teaching holds each of us is called. Sorrow and lament, this pattern teaches us, has its rightful place, a place that shouldn’t be rationalized away or passed over in haste. But lament’s rightful place, like the place of evil and sin in the created order, is neither fundamental nor ultimate.
This is where a philosophical account of the human passions and the logic of Scripture and Catholic practice converge. If we have reason to lament the causes of our sorrow, it’s because we first have reason to love those good things that, when thwarted or threatened, lead us to lament. We lament well when we do so in such a way that the priority of love for the good is not obscured by our expressions of sorrow or grief. And if scriptural, liturgical, and devotional practices of lamentation invite us to recognize that there is much in this life that is lamentable, these sources would also urge us that we cannot lament well without trust that the Lord’s ear is open to the voice of lament, or without the hope that the Lord vindicates those who cry out for remedy or redress.
The Goods and Risks of Lament
This account of the Catholic practice and understanding of lament suggests a few responses to the conversation about injustice and social wounds that DEI advocates have brought to public attention.
First and most basic: some things really are lamentable, and it is a mark of human virtue to respond accordingly. Here there are two common temptations, two ways of refusing to face the lamentable, that are to be avoided: either to explain away what calls for lament or to react with rash anger. Both temptations can be particularly acute in times of social division, or in times when a shared moral vocabulary and imagination have thinned to the point that concepts like justice, desert, and blame are asked to do more work than they are meant to.
In the face of lamentable evils, we can look away—either because it happened to those people, and they don’t count, or they brought it on themselves and are getting what’s theirs—or, we can change the subject and point to some other, greater tragedy we think is more deserving of our attention. Or we may immediately lash out in indignation that the world has failed to meet our moral expectations. “How could this happen to me? To her? How can crimes or tragedies like this still be happening today? Why haven’t we—why hasn’t someone—put a stop to this kind of thing yet?” Whether we react by explaining away, by changing the subject, or with indignant impatience, we refuse to face reality, to acknowledge the forms of evil, suffering, and loss that call for lamentation—including our own limitations in the face of them—either because we prefer not to look at how bad things can really get or because we would prefer to think we have more control over the fragile goods of this life than we really do.
A Catholic account of lamentation suggests another way. Consider the encounter between Christianity and ancient Stoicism. For the traditional Stoic, the practice of lamentation, as an expression of sorrow, is ruled out for two reasons: first, the human good consists entirely in virtue; second, divine providence extends to all things for the sake of the good of the universe considered as a whole. Together, these claims led ancient Stoics to hold that any apparent misfortunes that befall us—any loss of health, career, friends, family, home—should be accepted without sorrow. A good Stoic response to loss would look like the reaction of the Pre-Socratic Anaxagoras, reported by Plutarch and Cicero, upon learning of his son’s death: “I was aware that I had begotten a mortal.”
Contrast this with, for example, Christ’s tears at the tomb of Lazarus, reported in the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel. If we take the full humanity of Christ seriously, we shouldn’t see this merely as a performance for the sake of illustrating a point, but as a real expression of grief. “See how much he loved him,” the bystanders observe (John 11:36). Christ allows himself to weep at the tomb of Lazarus even as he knows he will raise his friend to life again, and Christ’s weeping reveals the divine attitude toward suffering and death by means of a fully human response to the death of a friend and to the grief of his family. The biblical hope is that every tear, in the end, will be wiped away—not that there is nothing to weep over.
The Risk of Despair and the Need for Hope
Lamenting well requires the exercise of hope. Here, as before, a temptation confronts us: to focus on the lamented loss or on its causes in such a way that any path forward fades from view and, in the extreme case, becomes unimaginable. Despair and resentment take root and become paralyzing. Rather than being a way of acknowledging the truth and clearing the ground for future healing or reconciliation, the one who laments despairingly imprisons himself in a cycle where the only apparent relief comes from reliving the sorrow or renewing the accusation against who’s really to blame. A dysfunctional relation to sorrow and loss becomes what Gerard Manley Hopkins named “carrion-comfort,” a false remedy that, like the carcasses fed on by vultures, can offer us no sustenance.
Lament, then, needs to be strengthened by hope if it is to be shaped properly. There is a vivid illustration of this in Augustine’s Confessions: twice Augustine reports scenes of loss and grief from his past life. In the first, long before his conversion, the loss of a friend leads Augustine to wallow in his sorrow, to the point that he leaves his hometown because the memories of his friend make the place unbearable to him. His love has been too acquisitive, too conditioned by inordinate self-love, lacking in any form of hope that could enable him to carry on in the face of loss. Much later, after his conversion and the death of his mother, Monica, Augustine is tempted at first to hold back his sorrow, to hold that his mother’s absence from him is nothing to lament over. But in time, Augustine resolves to give expression to his sorrow, to weep for Monica. He does so in a way that turns, not inward upon himself and his self-love, but outward in the form of a trusting confession to God.
There are reasons for hope available to us all, believers or not, but the possibility of lamentation as a form of prayer provides an especially potent way of ensuring that lament is enlivened by hope rather than rendered morbid by despair.
Lament and the Healing of Social Wounds
A Catholic account of lament suggests to us a way of responding constructively to our social wounds. The Christian faith proposes for belief a God who responds to human wounds by bearing those wounds in his own freely assumed humanity. Those wounds—Christ’s wounds—are themselves cause for lament, illustrated by some of the devotions and prayers we considered above. Yet even in the resurrection, as commentators have pondered at length, Christ’s wounds are not erased or undone. Far from it: Christ draws attention to them even as he greets the apostles with peace. As John’s Gospel tells it, it is the recognition of the living Christ through those wounds that becomes the occasion of the apostles’ reconciliation with him, as well as, arguably, the greatest confession of faith to be found in the Gospels (John 20:24-28).
Aside from the Christological and eschatological lessons to be drawn from this, I take this image as an exemplar of what a Catholic account of lament teaches us to hope for in our lamentation. Yes, lament recognizes things that should be otherwise—the damage in God’s creation. But the Lord’s response to things that should not be is not simply to undo them. God creates a world, not a puppet show. When things go wrong, he takes up what his creatures do with his creation, wounds and all, and weaves them into his ongoing work. What we wish were otherwise, what should not be—the apparent, temporary frustration of God’s wise and loving intention in creating—becomes not mere loss but an unveiling of divine love that sacrifices and rises again. That’s the kind of promise that the Catholic tradition holds out to those who lament: not that by our efforts we will be able simply to remove or undo our social wounds, but that lamentation will help them heal, and become in ways we can’t anticipate, channels of healing and grace.
This essay was adapted from a presentation given at a workshop on DEI and religious perspectives on October 14, 2023.