Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, For They Will Be Comforted

Nowhere and at no time is grief more acute than on those holidays when we celebrate our connectedness to others: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Birthdays, Anniversaries.  If you are grieving, acutely and painfully morning the loss of a precious loved one, this post is for you.  I also write for the friends of the bereaved, to help you understand a bit of what your friend may be going through.

Sometimes at holidays, memories of our loved ones can be so detailed and vivid that the presence of our loved one with us can feel almost palpable.  I think this might be, partly, because holidays are like punctuation marks in our lives.  We tend to remember what we were doing, where we were, as we pay special attention to those days.  Yet, when we've experienced a loss, the acute vividness of our memories of earlier times, happier times, makes the absence of our loved one all the harder to bear.

There are a thousand things we might be grieving.  We can grieve the loss of health, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a friend, the loss of anything we value and hold dear!  I write today about the grief that hits us like a truck.  It bowls us over and knocks us off our feet, causing us to question everything, and leaving us totally bereft.  First of all, and most importantly, please know I am praying for your comfort. Someone does care.

How hard it is when the pain of our grieving feels so fresh and so raw.  We hear the sound of laughter, but it is only a memory, echoing in silent rooms.  We can picture an image in our mind of the way our loved one appeared to us at the last holiday, but it only is a reflection back at us from the empty mirror of our mind. Their favorite food sits on the table, uneaten. Their favorite tall tale that we've heard a thousand times is repeated in our mind, but we can no longer hear it told in the familiar voice we so desperately long to hear. We smell a faint wisp of their favorite cologne, only to realize they aren’t the one wearing it. We replay in our mind their unique little mannerisms, as if they were silent movies we can only watch, eluding the grasp of our outstretched fingers and yearning hearts.

At the same time these memories contrast with the present reality, we yearn for them and cherish them.  Only recently, I experienced a precious childhood memory: a visual recollection of my grandfather’s gnarled and wrinkled hands, quietly shelling peas, as we sat together under a shade tree during the afternoon of a sweltering summer day. The silent space of this memory bears witness to my unspoken cry of loneliness for him, and my desire to keep his memory close to me.  I want to make sure that this memory, and my grandfather, remain a part of who I "am."

Yet, at other times, the depth and uncontrollable nature of our pain may even frighten us. We never know what may cause waves of grief  to roll over us, unstoppable, like a giant surf during a vast ocean storm. One misplaced comment from a well meaning friend could knock us topsy turvy and set off an avalanche of  emotion.  We may experience grief at these times as being like a vicious animal that must be set aside and contained, lest it overwhelm our ability to cope.

The experience of acute grief is a very different place than normal, everyday life.  When we are grieving, nothing feels "normal."  Nothing is "everyday." Normalcy is a state we desire, but it is a state we loathe at the same time.  We want "normal" only if our loved one is in it.  We may even reject the new "normal" to such a degree that we wish we could have died along with our loved one.  Yet in fact we did not die with our loved one, and so now we find ourselves in a place we don't want to be.   Grieving is a special space, separate place from either the old or the new.  It is an in-between place. We are separated from those for whom we grieve, and yet where we are not quite present with those who remain here with us.

In the midst of our grieving, sometimes the diffuse nature of our feelings of alienation might lead us to feel we are wandering as if through a dense fog, without any clear sense direction, through the rough terrain of a rugged wilderness. It feels like a spiritual and mental wasteland, a place in which we’re not quite “here,” but we're not quite “there,” either. We are on a threshold. We have left the “tried and true,” but we have not yet replaced it with anything else.  If you are grieving, you know this feeling.  You are acutely aware that someone, or something, precious is missing.  And you also will agree that we can never "replace" that which has been lost.  Nothing is "normal."  Everything feels wrong.  Our loved one is not here.  We know we can't go back, but we don't want to move on without our loved one, either.  We are neither here, nor there.

When we mourn, perhaps it's as if we are in a separate foyer, a passage between two places.  What do we call this grieving space, where even in the midst of a crowded room we may feel acutely alone? What do we make of it? What do we "do" with it, spiritually? What will become of us if we dwell therein?

In this culture of 21st Century USA, always "on the go," we do not make room for this space or for the process of grieving.  Our culture fails even to name it or acknowledge that it exists. It's as if we are in uncharted territory.  Where is the roadmap?  In our culture, there isn't one.  As a result of our failure to name it, we are struck with even more fear related to this wild and desolate place.

In the absence of any roadmap or guide, we have so many questions unanswered:   If we allow ourselves to sink into the choking sobs that accompany our loss, will we then slip irretrievably into an inescapable maelstrom of dark sadness and loneliness?  If we cave in to our grief, will we fall into some unfathomable place where no ray of light can ever reach us? Will our lives fall into a chaos of madness, disappearing into a black hole at the bottom of the fulcrum of despair? Hopefully not, but it can feel that way, as our fears of insanity and of losing control make us resist letting our ship sail off the edge of the flat earth into the unknown abyss of unconquered grief.

It has not always been this way, and need not be this way now, either.  I would like to provide a small light to help illuminate the path.

Throughout history, and in other cultures and times, grieving has been compared to a journey, a passage.  The person who grieves has left one world -- the world as it was -- but they have not yet entered the new world -- the world as it shall be.  Grieving is what occurs on the threshold between these two worlds.  The space where we grieve, where we undergo major life transitions, has been described and defined as a "liminal space."  Our status in transition is known as liminality.  Yes, liminal space is an uncomfortable and frightening place to be. It is a dark and stormy place, inhabited by raw, frightening emotions and our deepest fears.  Yet, many cultures deliberately set apart liminal space, experiencing it as a sacred, spiritual space.

It may help a grieving person to know that their experience of disorientation, confusion, and questioning is a normal part of the grieving journey.  In a seminal essay, "Betwixt and Between, the Liminal Period in Rites of Passage," anthropologist Victor Turner wrote that in times of luminality, the person's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation.  But with this diorientation also comes the possibility of new perspectives.  Carrying this thought further, in a spiritual sense, Christian theologian Richard Rohr urges us to honor our sacred time in liminal space.

Liminal space is a sacred time of transition and mourning that we have lost touch with in our modern world.  Indeed, Rohr urges, it is precisely when we lose ourselves in this desolate space that God is enabled to do his greatest work in us. [Richard Rohr, “Grieving as Sacred Space,” Sojourners Magazine, January-Februaryl 2002 (accessed November 26, 2013).]   Spiritually, Rohr points out, we are not only "betwixt and between" one stage of life and the next, but also in this twilight space we hover between the transcendent and spiritual versus the present and concrete.  In this liminal space, Rohr suggests, God can do great work in us, precisely because we are so unsettled.  For it is when there is an emptiness, as well as a space where everything is anguishingly topsy-turvy for us, that we are most open and vulnerable to the creative and re-creating work of the Holy Spirit.

Liminal space is the place where Joseph was when he was in the pit. It is the place where Israel was when it was in the wilderness. It is the place where Jonah was when he was in the belly of the fish, where the three Marys were when they were tending the tomb.

Splitting of the Red Sea by Dr. Lidia Kozenitsky

When it is acknowledged and set aside, liminal space, the space we allow ourselves for grieving, gives us a place where we can safely question everything.  Everything!  Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is the meaning of life?  Where do I go from here?  Why me?  In this intense, uncomfortable space, every aspect of our lives is fair game for examination and questioning.  No wonder, then, that we fear sailing our ship off the edge of the cliff, into the black hole of the unknown!  In fact, liminality is such an emotionally chaotic and uncomfortable experience, that we cannot long bear this feeling of chaos, confusion, and disorientation.

But what is there to keep us safe in this chaos?  What can save us from sailing over the edge into the abyss?

The blessing that is inherent in every true, sacred space is that there is something which anchors us with one, particular, and undeniable reference point.  That reference point is God.  It is promised in Acts 17 that God is never far from any one of us. For "in him we live and move and have our being."  In the darkness of our liminal space, we must listen for God.  For God is the anchor that will keep us from sliding over the edge of the abyss, even during our darkest hour.

What is the alternative, if it is a hard struggle to find the anchoring presence of God?  One temptation, Rohr warns, is to attempt to flee from this dark, uncomfortable place.  We perceive our grieving space as a place where nothing is comfortable or familiar, and everything is unknown.  We would prefer for everything to be settled. We'd prefer for it to be as it was. We'd prefer to have answers. It's tempting, in response, to fill our time with activities and things to do.  We create distractions so that we never have to face that dark and loneliness.

But wait! If we give into anxiety and seek answers too soon, we may in our haste construct a man-made Tower, rather than the new structure God would have us build.  We must be patient, with God and with ourselves.  As uncomfortable as it feels to us, it is the very emptiness  itself, the chaos and confusion of our liminality, that enables the re-shuffling and the making of a new creation.  Rohr goes so far as to assert that everything that is genuinely new and creative about us arises from this liminal space, from this sacred space.  With so much at stake in terms of our authentic, God-led recreation, the words, "Be still and know that I am God" take on even more meaning.  Wait upon God.

For those who are grieving, times like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Birthdays, and Anniversaries, can be a time of deep sorrow and sad memories. Yet, there can still be hope in our grief.  When we are still, listen, and open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, may we derive comfort from God's presence with us in that dark and holy place.  (This I pray for myself as well as for you!)  As the psalmist writes,

"Where shall I go from your Spirit?  
Or where shall I flee from your presence?  
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!  
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!  
If I take the wings of the morning 
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 
even there your hand shall lead me, 
and your right hand shall hold me."

Even in the depths of Sheol, God is there.  And, through what means?  Near the end of his time on earth, Jesus said to his Disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled." Then, he then promised to send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. He continued, in verse 17: “[Y]ou [will] know him, for he [will] live with you and will be in you.”  Through this Holy Spirit, we participate in, and even co-create, our own resurrection from grieving.  When we embrace and sail into the storm, we do not sail off the edge. Rather, we do, indeed, conquer the maelstrom.

Yes, with the loss of our loved one, the world changed!  Everything that was aright, even if it was not perfect, has been turned upside down. We may not like it, we may resist it.  Indeed, we may fight like hell!  But, no matter how we flail, we cannot change the fact that our world has been turned upside down, and in a way that cannot be set aright again.  There is just one thing we do have for certain, a sure anchor in the storm.  Namely, we can be secure in the knowledge that a loving God is with us, holding us in the cocoon of God’s creative power.  This anchor, God's love for us and God's creative, life giving power, enables our faith.  It enables a continual renewal  and rewriting of our life story.  With this, we can know and trust that our bereavement is not the end of the story.

There is an old gospel song, "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded, that he is able, to keep that which I've committed, unto him against that day!"  Yes.  We are "kept" in a safe place.  As we are experiencing the storm, it may feel that the boat is going to sink and that all is about to be lost.  But, slowly, the seas begin to feel less violent.  The swells are eventually spaced further apart and feel less overwhelming. The winds seem to buffet us less.   Eventually, calm returns.  A blessed  calm and peace.  By the Grace of God, and through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we find that somehow we have walked across the threshold from old to new, and that we have become a new creation.

And then, in the darkness of our night, we may begin to notice, a glimmer of light beginning to form.  And then it grows. Through this process of examining everything, of holding nothing back in our questioning, God enables our vision. As we wait upon God, in this liminal place, we begin to find ourselves empowered to actively participate in the creation of our own re-imagining of our future.  When everything is open to re-examination, and re-evaluation, we become co-creators of our own future.

This process of questioning and co-creation is how God operates, to challenge us to find our own answers, from within.  Rohr writes:

Jesus knew how to create spiritual desire, how to foster a longing for God, how to make communion possible. He is a teacher of vulnerability, more than anything else. … [H]e only answered three out of 183 questions that were asked of him! He left us on the threshold where we are never in control. I [Rohr] am beginning to see where that leads: to participation.  You see, the opposite of control is not non-control or giving up. The opposite of control is actually participation. Without our easy answers—and we have none now—we collapse into a deeper participation with the whole roller coaster of life and death. The suffered cycle of death and resurrection is itself the great teacher, and will in the long run produce the only wisdom that will get us through this dark time.

The new self that we become is a wiser self.  A self that is more true to ourselves, and more true to our God. We become a new creation, able to move on in more positive ways.

"Wisdom?" you ask. "What wisdom? Who wants that? I'd rather have my loved one!"  I agree!  Truly, I will not trivialize loss. For you who are grieving, I know this is not an easy time. I will not insult you with platitudes telling you how to get better, or even to tell you that you should get better or that you should do anything. I cannot know where you are, what you are grieving, or what is healthy for you! I will, instead, pray for the dark and warm cocoon of creative and redemptive power to shelter and nurture you through this time of spiritual transition, through this liminal space, no matter where you may be spiritually.

I will pray that, through it all, you will be anchored by the felt presence of love from God, by the challenging questions of Jesus and the clarity of God's love as revealed in the Gospel, and by the creative breath of the Holy Spirit. And I pray that through these creative forces and through this liminal, creative, dark and expanding, cocooning space, you will find a new direction, a spiritual resurrection.  I will pray that, even as you hold on to what is good and valuable in your precious memories, you will also be empowered and renewed, so that you may cross a threshold eventually, into a new space in this world, as a new creation who has been breathed by the healing breath of God, through a work that only God can accomplish.

Yes, there has been terrible power of destruction and tearing down.  Not of our own choosing.  A great and terrible force, turning our lives upside down.  And in the process, when everything is undone, unsettled, and tossed, we are re-made.  We are never the "same."  Things never return to "normal."  But there is room for healing and for hope.  For you, I will pray a rainbow.

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