Do you feel the need to weep and mourn at times? That you need a safe place to let out your heartbreak, angst, and disappointment? The Western Wall – known commonly as the Wailing Wall – in Jerusalem has served as such a space over the centuries. It’s a surviving remnant of God’s Temple and was the spot closest to the Holy of Holies – that place where God’s presence dwelled. Jewish pilgrims who journey there pour out their hearts and prayers to the Lord.
I thought about the Wailing Wall recently as I led a book club retreat in sunny Spain. With palm trees, cacti, and citrus trees in the background, we met around the pool, chatting through the books I had selected for the week and engaging with related spiritual exercises. The setting was idyllic, fostering deep conversation about the books we’d read, one of them being The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
Perhaps you’ve read it or seen the film adaptation. Set in the American South during the sixties, it features the protagonist, Lily, a white girl on the cusp of growing up. With her nanny Rosaleen, she escapes her abusive father in the quest to find out more about her mother, who died when she was four years old. They end up in a house the color of Pepto-Bismol where a group of black sisters keep bees and observe religious practices based on a black Madonna.
Parenthetically, I should mention that I’m not recommending the theology as expressed in the novel – it’s not Trinitarian and deifies a folk legend based on Mary. But as Christians we can and should engage with what we read critically, weighing up what we agree with and what we don’t – a bit like my book club did as we discussed the novel by the pool.
The Wailing Wall comes into the story because of May, the youngest sister. In the following excerpt, Lily finds out from the oldest sister August about how the wall came about as Lily notices the pieces of paper sticking out of the wall of stones in the backyard.
“I guess you’ve noticed – May is special.”
“She sure does get upset easy,” I said.
“That’s because May takes things in differently than the rest of us do.” August reached over and laid her hand on my arm. “See, Lily, when you and I hear about some misery out there, it might make us feel bad for a while, but it doesn’t wreck our whole world. It’s like we have a built-in protection around our hearts that keeps the pain from overwhelming us. But May – she doesn’t have that. Everything just comes into her – all the suffering out there – and she feels as if it’s happening to her. She can’t tell the difference.”
August goes on to tell Lily about how May’s twin sister, April (and yes, the other sister is June – they are known as the Calendar Sisters) took her life when they were eleven, after she suffered a stinging injustice that she couldn’t forgive. May changed after her twin’s death, as August said:
“When April died, something in May died, too. She never was normal after that. It seemed like the world itself became May’s twin sister…. Our mother said that she was like Mary, with her heart on the outside of her chest.”
August and June tried to get medical help for May, but nothing was successful until they came up with the idea of the wailing wall – a place for May to mourn and write out her prayers as she tucked little slips of paper into the cracks and crevices of the piled-up stones. Whenever she heard of an atrocity – done to someone known to her or unknown – she would sing “Oh, Susanna” as she tried to stem the tears, then would take herself out to the wall to release her pain and hurt.
As Christians, we might believe that we don’t have a need for a Wailing Wall, for after all, we have two pieces of wood, fashioned into a cross, where we can find freedom and forgiveness. And Jesus’ death on the cross is crucial to our faith; I wouldn’t want to take away from its central place in our lives (indeed, last year I wrote here about how it is a place of exchange). Yet because we live in a fallen world, where all is not as God intended, at times we feel the need to wail – to cry out to Lord, especially on behalf of those whom we love.
Why not join me in the exercise of going to a Wailing Wall as we did in Spain? We found some cracks in the garden wall, which perfectly received our slips of paper on which we wrote our prayers to God. The wall was made out of breeze blocks covered in plaster, so we knew when we slipped in our pieces of paper that they would stay in the wall, known only to God. The moment was holy as we felt a release of our cares and we received the love and acceptance of God.
Exercise (for individuals or groups):
Use the wailing wall as a conduit of God’s mercy. Find a wall with cracks in it, or make your own out of stones. Write any names or situations that you want to give to the Lord on slips of paper and as you place them into the wall, know that the Lord receives the cries of your heart. Wait for any words, pictures, or Scriptures that the Lord may have for you.
Later as you reflect on the exercise, consider how you incorporate rituals into your life. If you don’t, why not? If you do, what are they? How do they help with any grief and suffering you may experience?
In the comments, we’d love to hear if you try out this exercise, and any spiritual nuggets you glean. Thank you!