In a Palm Sunday service, our Episcopalian preacher quoted from novelist Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, “What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”
During this liturgical season of Lent, the forty days of remembrance beginning with Ash Wednesday to this Easter morning’s joyous celebration, her words illuminated this faith journey.
In truth, I have often found the Biblical story of Jesus enduring the cross a profound mystery. Was there really no other way? A brutal death by crucifixion seems an unimaginable way to bear the essence in a story of Divine Love, that “God so loved the world he gave His only Son.” In Good Friday services, when Christians around the world gather in remembrance , I find myself restless, even resistant, as we ponder the devastating wounds to Jesus’s body and soul.
To imagine His sense of human betrayal and then lingering for hours with almost unbearable suffering, this is the heart of a Biblical story that confounds. Then, to imagine the anguish of His mother Mary watching helplessly adds even more to the heartbreak.
With daily news of brutal violence racking our contemporary world, I confess to prefer focusing on the daily actions of a compassionate comforting Jesus, one who lived radically and demonstrated justice and love for all. When my husband Jim, a college professor, returned from taking students to Central America one spring, he mentioned noticing the difference in the creative focus throughout Holy Week, especially with elaborate parades and passionate ceremonies on Good Friday. In contrast, Easter Day celebrations were low key.
“In countries where so many persons endure marginalized life, there appears to be a deep identification with the love expressed by the suffering Jesus and His passion,” reflected Jim. “In America, I wonder if we prefer to focus on Easter Day, with our emphasis on the risen Christ, because it’s a story of hope and optimism?” How true for me, I thought.
What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.
Yet, by giving attention to the mystery of the Great Sorrow, we are invited into a deeper understanding of the Great Gift. There are three details of the Biblical narrative that I find especially compelling: the region’s plunge into three hours of daytime darkness while Jesus slowly died, the veil in the temple rent in two, and the earth quaking when Jesus “yielded up His Spirit.”
I doubt I’ll ever fully understand the “why,” of the crucifixion, those hours of dark agony. But the words from one hymn ring true. “O, the deep deep love of Jesus. Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.”
So though the cross seems confusing and mysterious, the words of writer Rainier Marie Rilke echo my trust in this narrative, “I believe in the night,” says Rilke. This great darkness that embraces everything.
Because near the Great Sorrow lies the Great Gift.
A Gift that our family so needed when two friends came to our door one beautiful May dawn to deliver news that our 25-year-old daughter, Krista, had been killed in Bolivia when a bus plunged over a cliff. Krista and her husband, Aaron, were on a three-year mission of voluntary service with indigenous families in the remote river valley of Banada de la Cruz.
Her last words in a journal expressed the source of her strength and joy, “All my springs of joy are in You.” Her hope was to live in a way that served God and God’s beloved people. Her early death made no sense in our human understanding and our heart-shattered lives. There are times when each of us are immersed in unexplained mystery, in unmeasurable sadness. When I hear stories from persons who are walking in their pilgrimage of loss, in the raw wound of sorrow, the magnitude of the mysterious Gift of Easter emerges. Earth-shattering, curtain-rending defeat of death’s dominion.
For in Christ’s resurrection also comes the astounding promise of everlasting life.
A Poverty of Imagination
Like most of us, I have a poverty of imagination on what eternity might look like. However, there is no question that believing in Jesus’ joyful promise offers a measure of peace while living with the earthly loss of our beloved daughter. But my own experience also aligns with research that shows that even if one believes in a life after death, this doesn’t take away the yearning, the missing of the physical presence for the one we love.
Sorrow carves deep, but now companioned with quiet joy.
As poet Mary Oliver wrote,
“We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.”
I recall a moment walking on a high mountain lane near Priest Lake where we share a cabin with friends. For some reason, I began imagining how wondrous it would be if Krista walked towards me down the road. I felt my excitement rise just thinking of what it would be like to see her again. I remember I would have wanted to ask her, “What it is like to be living in eternity? Had she met my brother Larry, also killed in a car accident at 23, or reunited with her grandparents, and her close friend Heather who died of cancer at 21?” This gave me a tiny glimpse into what the disciples must have felt at the astonishing return visits of Jesus, and the joy and hope this infused in their lives.
It is dawn on Easter morning and the aroma of home-baked almond croissants wafts through our kitchen. I am up early to prepare an Easter ham for a brunch with friends at our home. I’m looking forward to Easter’s celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Washington as we join with faith communities around the globe affirming in music and words, “He is risen…He is risen indeed!”
A Gift that finds deeper meaning after Lenten services that encouraged my restless heart to contemplate the mystery of the Great Sorrow.
For this I am grateful.
Happy Easter to each of you!
Sometimes an almost miraculous moment gives peace to a broken-hearted mother.
When Cathy Bobb learned her beautiful 20-year-old daughter Mary was murdered while closing up the video store where she worked, her heart shattered. Already emotionally vulnerable when she struggled with bouts of depression, this shock in 1993 added to her sense of life’s fragility.
Sometimes, though, in the following years she found serendipity remembrances of her beloved daughter that encouraged her spirit. It happened most while deep cleaning the country home where she lived with her husband Vic. “I might be cleaning out a closet, and discover a little drawing from childhood, or find a bracelet that fell down the couch.” She liked these surprises, almost feeling like they were visits from Mary.
But within a few years, this no longer happened. “I remember having a conversation with God one day and saying, ‘I guess there won’t be any more reminders of Mary. We must have found them all.” This deepened her sadness. “I really cried a lot this day since I missed her so much.”
Cathy and Vic once owned a piano, but when they moved to a small apartment in 1986, they loaned the piano to Lee Ann Chaney, a fellow professor at the university where Vic taught English. Finally, several years after Mary’s death, they told the professor that she could just keep it.
So Lee Ann cleaned out the piano bench, and dropped off a box full of remnants to Vic’s campus office. He stored this in his office closet, and promptly forgot about it. Nor did he mention this to Mary.
A SURPRISE VALENTINE
A few weeks later, shortly after Cathy’s prayer, Vic happened to bring the box home.
“To my unbelievable delight, besides her old piano books, I also discovered a handmade Valentine card that Mary drew for me when she was just 8 years old. This was over 15 years earlier!” recalls Cathy,
In Mary’s handwriting on a paper heart was her poem:
Through all your years
Through all your tears
Here is a kiss.
“Then, Mary had borrowed my lipstick and put a kiss on the card. Under this, she wrote:
P.S. I hope you like this! I recall that when she gave it to me she even thought her poem seemed a little strange and she feared I wouldn’t like it.
I felt badly because this came after one of my bouts of depression when I cried a lot and it troubled me that I caused her worry as a young child.”
But the timing of receiving of this Valentine left Cathy overjoyed. “I hadn’t prayed to God to ‘please let me have just one more thing.’ Even so, what I usually found were just little things, like a drawing. To receive this Valentine with the words of her love was a great gift. It felt like she sent me a hug from heaven, reassuring me that no matter the hard times, know I love you. It healed a lot and this healing has held for me.” A kiss, after years and years of tears.
A Waterfall of Mercy
Her story reminds me of a phrase in Franciscan priest Richard Rohr’s daily meditation book Yes, And...where he speaks of our living “under the waterfall of mercy.” Many persons have shared with me some extraordinary moments in ordinary days when they sense the love of the person that has died. Often these happen in nature. What most emerges from these different stories, which they hesitate to tell many others, is how this gives them a growing inner peace and confidence.
Clearly, a waterfall of mercy when our hearts feel parched.
Have you ever experienced such moments?
Grief often affects our bodies as well as our spirits. My first inkling of the value of exercise to soothe grief came when my friend and faculty colleague, Jerry Sittser, lost his wife, mother, and daughter in one car accident. A few months later, in the aftermath of this unimaginable tragedy caused by a drunk driver, his brother-in-law insisted Jerry go skiing with him. Fresh mountain air, invigorating exercise, nature’s beauty, and male friendship all gave a lift to the devastating sorrow that engulfed his days. Eventually, Jerry developed such a passion for cross-country skiing that he created a three-week “Jan Term” class for university students at Tall Timber, a Presbyterian retreat in the Cascade mountains in Washington state. Here the students practiced a rhythm combining hours of daily skiing, the study of spiritual disciplines, and work. During these years, he also wrote A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief, a book that has emerged as a classic in Christian grief literature.
I thought of the power of physical exercise to soothe grief again while seeing the movie Wild, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon). Numbed by grief after her beloved mother dies, Cheryl becomes aware of the futility of using drugs and casual sex to ease her profound despair. So this inexperienced hiker decides to take a 1100-mile solo walk for several months on the Pacific Crest Trail. Despite loneliness, fatigue, and body-bruising pain, she perseveres with the challenge of taking steps forward each day. This healing experience offered quiet times to reflect on her life’s direction, and gradually increased her physical strength and emotional confidence as she met her daily goals. She emerges from the debilitating shadow of grief with renewed abilities to pursue her professional craft as a writer, and with the capacity for commitments to love again through marriage and motherhood.
Obviously, few of us have the luxury or desire for a several months detour during a season of grief. Instead, we need to find ways to stay physically active within ordinary days. Our expansive hillside garden offered healing gifts in the early years after losing Krista. Digging, planting, transplanting, and preparing perennial and vegetable beds brought me outside during three seasons of the year. My spirit was renewed by the harbingers of hope that abound. Planting 200 brown bulbs in autumn dirt gave the spring reward of a field of yellow daffodils, a soothing site after winter’s frigid grip. Planting one six-inch sun-gold tomato in a ceramic patio pot in June led to hundreds of tasty cherry tomatoes from a four-foot plant by August. Such abundance, with just a little human effort, gave me courage to believe again in the goodness of the future. http://pilgrimagethroughloss.com/healing-garden…wers-peach-pie/
After profound shock and loss, disturbing physical reactions, such as insomnia, fatigue, loss of appetite, and vulnerability to illness, depression, or anxiety can affect our lives. Persons often speak of not even wanting to get up in the morning, let alone get up to exercise. No way! Yet, significant research demonstrates that regular physical exercise offers one tangible way to the greater sense of well-being. For some persons, it is equal or even more effective than the use of anti-depressant medication prescribed during grief (see New York Times article http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/31/prescribing-exercise-to-treat-depression/).
Four Ways Physical Exercise Soothes Grief
- Exercise involves an active choice towards positive emotional and physical health. During trauma, life often seems disorienting, even chaotic. Taking small steps daily towards healing, especially when we don’t feel like doing this, often gives us a regained sense of direction and purpose.
- Exercise often gives us a social network, whether through attending classes, joining teams, or simply finding a walking partner. This can be a lifeline back into community since grief often becomes isolating.
- Physical activity increases our sense of well-being, attested to by extensive mind-body research. The “runners high” simply refers to the reality that the release of endorphin hormones from exercise often improves our mood. With the accompanying blood flow to the brain, this also means we often focus better, an encouraging clarity of thought after a grief-induced mental fog.
- Many exercises, such as walking, running, hiking, gardening, cycling and others place us in the restorative realm of nature that also nurtures our spirits. Here’s an earlier blog on nature’s comfort http://pilgrimagethroughloss.com/next-blog/ and I’ll write more about this in the future!
In the exercise class I take twice-a-week at the YMCA, our instructor wore a t-shirt that boasted,
“The miracle is not that I finished, but that I started.”
I laughed when I saw this because every Tuesday and Thursday morning, my strong preference is to stay in our warm bed rather than get up early for the class. In the midst of doing core-strengthening planks, when my body quivers in protest, it’s easy to wonder, “why do this?” But afterwards, it always feels good to have ignored my natural resistance.
Are there ways you found exercise helpful in your pilgrimage? What worked best for you? What didn’t?
An important article in the Sunday New York Times, “Getting Grief Right,” addresses how harmful the myth of closure and stages becomes for persons living with profound sorrow and loss. While listening to parents across the nation, I often hear them describe this problem in our culture, and how these attitudes towards grief often confuse and hurt them. As families say in Nancy Berns’ book Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us, “It’s not possible, not good, not desired, and not necessary!” Click on the live link below if you’d like to read the NYTimes article. You might also find my earlier blog post Who Wants Closure http://pilgrimagethroughloss.com/category/families/who-wants-closure/ of interest too.
GIFTS OF GRACE
Our family is spread across the nation, so we are thrilled to have enjoyed a reunion in Kauai, Hawaii, where our son Jefferson’s family recently moved. Our daughter Susan’s family from Boston joined us, as well as Aaron (Krista’s husband before her death) and his beautiful Bolivian wife Gabriella and our two heart-grandchildren. Our family life is so much richer because no one followed culture’s assumption on closure. Instead, we live with belief in the heart’s expansive ways of ongoing love, grateful for this grace in our days. Infinite beauty!
What are your thoughts on American culture’s emphasis on closure?