Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


November 20, 2000

My mother and father had a strong faith. They prayed every day and had us, as a family, pray with them. One of the prayers they said daily was the Salve Regina, an old, classic prayer which asks Mary to intercede for us. Many of us, I suspect, are familiar with it. At one point it describes our state in this life as "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears."

Is this a healthy way to describe ourselves? They never gave it a thought. For them, it made eminent sense to pray like that.

For many of us today, it would seem, it doesn't make sense any more. More and more, I see people reacting negatively to this phrase (and others like it found in old prayers and hymns). To describe ourselves as "mourning and weeping in a valley of tears" seems for many of us to be morbid, bad theology, an affront to the spirit of wholeness, celebration and joy that should permeate our lives.

I know more than a few persons who in the name of good health, sound theology, and holistic spirituality refuse to pray the Salve Regina because of that single line. Is this right or wrong?

These things are not so much right or wrong as they are either beneficial or detrimental to our well-being. What's the benefit or harm in conceiving of ourselves as living in a valley of tears?

My own feeling is that, properly understood, this can be healthy. There can be a lot of value (ironically, holistic value) in praying in exactly this way. What a prayer like this does is give us permission to not feel abnormal precisely when we aren't bubbling with happiness. What it tells us is that it's okay to have a bad day, a lonely season, a life that somehow never fully gets free of tension and restlessness. It tells us not to be too hard on ourselves when we are out of sorts since this is in fact often the normal course of things.

More importantly, it gives us permission to not have to find the full symphony in this life. And the consequence of accepting this is that we can then stop putting unfair pressure on our spouses, families, friends, vacations, and jobs to give us something that they can't give, namely, happiness without a shadow, the full symphony. To accept that we live in an habitual state of incompleteness is to not let an unrealistic ideal crucify what's good in our lives.

Henri Nouwen would agree. He puts it this way: Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the happiest moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy.

Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness. . . . When you touch the hand of a returning friend, you already know that he will have to leave you again. When you are moved by the quiet vastness of a sun-coloured ocean, you miss the friend who cannot see the same.

Karl Rahner, in his unique Germanic phraseology, has his own take on this. Rahner: In the torrent of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we come to realize that here in this life all symphonies remain unfinished.

My parents understood that and for them this was expressed precisely in lines like: "We pray, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears." Praying like this gave them permission to accept the inevitable limitations that life imposes. It gave them permission too to not have to demand from this life something it can never give – clear-cut pure joy.

Ironically, by saying the truth out loud ("There's no finished symphony to be had in this life!") they freed themselves to enjoy the very real joys that their life did offer them. They didn't always have to be restless for more. They didn't have to feel bad about feeling bad, about missing out on so much. They didn't have to look at each other in disappointment because they couldn't be God for each other.

They didn't have to do violence to life because it couldn't give them everything they wanted. They accepted the unfinished symphony of their lives – and of all lives – and, because of that, were able to enjoy the beauty and joy that was there. They were equipped, in ways that we aren't, to handle frustration.

For all of our emphasis on health, holism and positive theology, and for all of our attempts to exorcize everything that suggests limits, how equipped are we really to deal with life's inevitable frustrations?