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Vulnerability has inherent risks, but it is necessary

By Caitlin Ward


Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)
Andrew Lloyd Webber ft Tim Rice

This past weekend I participated in an extended act of irony. Or perhaps it was hypocrisy. I’m not quite sure which.

I was working at the time, co-facilitating the final seminar in a series of four that is attached to a study abroad program I co-ordinate. I’m always in charge of the morning of the fourth seminar. It’s always about the same thing. And it’s always an act of irony. Or hypocrisy. Irony tends to be more situational and hypocrisy tends to be more intentional, so it could go either way. How I name it is likely less relevant than what exactly I was doing at the time, mind you — at least for the purposes of you having any idea what I’m talking about.

I was talking about vulnerability that morning: its inherent risks, but its absolute necessity in order to be genuine and honest with ourselves and others, to build relationships. Essentially, to borrow a phrase: to live wholeheartedly.

I’m not so good at that. I can barely handle the fact that I wrote “to live wholeheartedly.” It makes me cringe a little bit, and I tried to make it clear that those weren’t my words. In fact, they’re the words of Brene Brown, a now rather popular public intellectual who speaks to the ideas of shame, vulnerability, and empathy. Basically, she studies and talks about how to be a fully functioning human being in the world who lives with integrity and honesty. It starts to feel pretty warm and fuzzy sometimes, and that is not my forte. Talking openly about feelings can make me feel queasy. When people thank me profusely for anything, for example, my immediate instinct is to call them a dork.

When I started this job nearly eight years ago, I looked at this particular study abroad program with wonder and suspicion, but mostly utter incomprehension. Over the course of these last years, I have learned to understand this idea, to work within it, to teach it. In many ways, I’ve gotten much better at it. Often, though, it’s been a street fight between vulnerability and a pathologically self-protective nature. I’m fighting my baser instincts every time I reach out to someone with vulnerability, and every time it goes poorly I have to fight my way back through the walls that so easily go up again.

This particular seminar happened to fall toward the end of Lent this year. As we approach Easter, I’ve been thinking about this concept of vulnerability in a religious context. The narrative of the Triduum is one of profound vulnerability: Christ institutes the eucharist, asking his disciples to remember him, but when he asks these same people to stay awake with him while he prays, they fall asleep or they run off to the high priests to betray him.

In Gethsemane, Christ sweats blood, begging the Father to take away the burden placed on him, but the answer is his own capture. Too little and too late, one of his sleepy friends decides to wage war on the arresting party by randomly cutting off the ear of a slave who probably had very little say in what was going on. And then he pretends he doesn’t know Christ as soon as it gets a little hairy. In those moments, when Christ was beaten, bruised, and exhausted, I can imagine his human side thinking, “Why on earth would he be the rock on which to build my church?”

I’m guessing Christ was a heck of a lot less sarcastic and cynical than I am, but you never know. The Triduum story tells us that Christ was wounded and betrayed. Many of the people who had sworn to stand by his side abandoned him, and he walked to his death humiliated and largely alone. In those moments, in purely human terms, he was more vulnerable than many of us will ever have to be. In spiritual terms, it is beyond our comprehension to understand the constant openness that Christ has to each of us, and how he feels every one of our corporal acts of mercy or cruelty. He has laid himself bare for us: not just in the Triduum, but always.

And it is because of Christ’s willingness to enter into that that we have the harrowing of hell and the resurrection. It is because God broke down the walls between this world and the next through Christ’s birth and death that we are saved.

So it is because of this that every year, on the morning of the final seminar for this study abroad program, I still teach the value of vulnerability in a prolonged act of irony or hypocrisy, depending upon your politics. It is because I have learned that to open oneself up is not only an act of vulnerability, or trust; it is an act of faith.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at