Yesterday’s Gospel reading at church was the story of Jesus walking on the water – it recalled for me one of the best sermons I ever heard, sometime ago now, but still fresh in the memory; a sermon by a quiet, undemonstrative priest to a community that knew and loved him.
Drawing on the Bible story of Jesus reaching down to grab hand of Peter, who was sinking in the water, it was a moving sermon about the death of his father and about his own emotions. He admitted feeling a sense of anger at the graveside. He could not remember his father who had reached the grand age of 92 ever giving him a hug in his entire life. It was a sermon about depth of feeling, about deeply felt emotions, about grabbing firmly the hand of God. We all agreed, but, of course, I suspect few of us were going to change the way we were.
The day after the service, I visited an elderly lady at her home. She was 91 and had become increasingly frail. She burst into tears about the distress caused to her by younger members of her family. I sat and listened and said nothing. It would not be professional to express feelings, but what I felt was anger. This little old lady had spent her whole life caring for other people, the least she could expect in her closing years was a bit of peace.
I remember thinking about that sermon and my failure to say anything to the lady and picking up my Bible and opening it at the book of Jeremiah. The words of Jeremiah seemed to leap from the page, ‘Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears!’ The prophet complains at his lack of emotion in the face of all that has happened. He realizes that things important to God should draw deeply held feelings.
God is a God who expresses emotions. Read through the Bible and the one thing that God doesn’t do is sit there and say nothing. Read Jeremiah; read the prophet Hosea; read the Gospels. When his friend Lazarus dies, we are told in St John’s Gospel that Jesus weeps. When Jesus looks down on the city of Jerusalem, St Luke says that Jesus expresses his grief at the stubbornness and hard-heartedness of the people, ‘Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem’; read the verses and you can hear the pain in his voice.
Expressing emotion in Irish culture is often seen as a sign of weakness, yet emotion is an expression of how important things are. It always amazes me that people can express huge emotions at soccer or rugby or Gaelic matches, but when it comes to the real things, to the things of life and the things of death? Nothing.
I’m not a psychologist, I would love an explanation as to why the most deeply felt thoughts and feelings don’t bring out a greater response. We are silent.
We say nothing. We seem afraid to express our emotions. Perhaps it’s because we are reserved, perhaps it’s because we don’t feel things very strongly. Perhaps, like Jeremiah, tears may be the only response we can make and tears aren’t part of our culture.
Sitting at the service, I agreed with the preacher, but, when it came to applying what he said, I said nothing. Hearing something is OK, doing something about it is a different matter.
“I sat and listened and said nothing. It would not be professional to express feelings” . . .maybe that’s the key, you are expected to be the ‘tower of strength’. Frankly I admire those who express their emotions and expose their own ‘frailty’. Unfortunately, much of the ’emotional response’ is negative rather than sympathetic. Don’t lose your emotional self Ian . .If I visit a doctor and he gives me bad news, I WANT an emotional response, I certainly expect it from the clergy . . .even at work, it would be nice for someone to show a little more than professional edge. Then maybe that’s just me . .I wear my heart on my sleeve . .always! And there’s much to be said for the seven second hug!
It’s very sad if a father never hugs his son, or if sympathy is not expressed, but sometimes the urge to express emotion can be a selfish one – ignoring others’ feelings in order to express our own,. I’m also very suspicious of the requirement to display emotion in public life e.g. the criticism of the Queen for not showing suitable grief after the death of Princess Diana (who can scarcely have been her favourite person). There needs to be a careful balance struck between warmth and stridency, and between sensitivity and window-dressing.