WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
IV. SPIRITUALITY AND OUR HEARTS
Paradoxically, perhaps, finding spiritual encouragement also requires openness toward and awareness of life’s inevitable sadness and pain. Such awareness requires a sensitivity toward grief. The biblical tradition pictures God as uniquely available in the context of such sensitivity. The biblical tradition also pictures that concommitant with grief, trust follows from this experience of God’s availability.
These two elements of spirituality, grief and trust, actually exist in relation to each other. Grief leads to a loss of props, a loss of an illusion of control, a loss of a carefully constructed system of certainty and being “above the fray.” That is, grief leads to a loss of those attitudes and practices which mask our lack of trust. On the other hand, trust frees us to be honest about our sadness and pain. Such “negative” experiences need not ultimately threaten our trust in the overriding care and compassion of God.
The perspective on spirituality which I have been articulating is personal, it has to do with how we each make our way through life. That is not to imply that spirituality is something we cultivate in isolation from our social lives. I have argued that spirituality is all about relationships and that it has definite moral significance. I conclude this book with some more direct reflections regarding spirituality and the moral life.
O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit. I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness? But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in one me. You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness. – Psalm 88
Of this Psalm, Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann asks, what is a psalm like this doing in our Bible? He has two answers. First, the Book of Psalms intends to speak of all of life as it actually is, not just the good parts. Sometimes life is as this psalm pictures it – empty, no one there, overwhelming loss. “Here, more than anywhere else, [biblical] faith faces life as it is.” Secondly, this psalm is not just a record of mute depression. It is still speech. In speaking his grief, the psalmist acts as if something is there. He doesn’t get a response, but he keeps talking. “In the bottom of the Pit, Israel still knows it has to do with God.” So the psalm models a kind of trust, a continued awareness of God, even in the silence.
Both of these points have much to do with the way my thinking about spirituality is developing. Life as it is includes brokenness and silence. Spirituality has to do with finding ways to keep on; even in the silence to give voice to pain, grief, and hope for healing.
Now, the overall message of the Bible, even of the Psalms, promises that the silence won’t last forever. The fruit of the silence and grief, the fruit of keeping on, the fruit of better awareness of life as it is – the fruit of all this is joy.
In the late 1980s, my sense of what life is about changed significantly. Much more than before, I came to see that it is indeed, “a big ol’ goofy world.” That is, I became more aware that events do not always work right in life – likely more often than not they do not. I am actually pretty powerless to change that reality very much. To paraphrase the bumper stickers, loss happens. There is often little I can do but grieve those losses.
My awareness stemmed from my own experience of some pretty profound loss. It also stemmed from many people I am close to having similar experiences. My mother lost her father and her husband to death in rapid succession. One close friend had several people he was close to also die. Several close friends went through the loss of vocation as they have left pastoral ministry and didn’t really know what they’d do next. Several friends have experienced the loss of divorce. These experiences on a personal level also sensitize one to an awareness of loss in the wider world. Personal loss helps us feel the loss of wars and rumors of wars, economic dislocation, famine, earthquakes and hurricanes, and much more.
So, I realized that to think about spirituality means to think about living with loss. It means to think about going on in the face of loss, about struggling though loss and even finding a measure of joy. I am sure it is no coincidence that my investigation into the Bible has also pointed to this theme. The Bible faces, head on, the issues of living with loss, of finding hope amidst brokenness, of the location of God in a hurting universe.
I believe that one of the keys to facing these issues is coming to terms with the notion of grief. In my growing understanding of spirituality, I am increasingly becoming convinced that grief is crucial to a healthy spirituality. Grief helps open us up to meet God in uniquely profound ways. Grief helps open us up to meet ourselves in uniquely profound ways.
What do I mean by grief? Webster’s defines it as “intense emotional suffering caused by loss, disaster, misfortune; acute sorrow; deep sadness.” Now that definition is true as far as it goes, but I want to understand grief more broadly. Grief has to do with awareness and acceptance of loss, along with a sense that it is still loss. Something that matters is gone. To allow ourselves to grieve is to go beyond denying the loss. However, it means we feel the loss, it matters.
Grief implies relinquishment, giving up, letting go. It implies feeling the cost of that letting go. I want to mention briefly three biblical texts which express grief.
In Psalm 88, the psalmist grieves the loss of contentment, the loss even of a sense of God’s presence, the loss of a sense peace and wholeness. This is general grief. It may parallel what we might feel when we realize how shabby our lives are, how miniscule we are, maybe even how capable of evil we are. It is certainly grief at a sense of God’s absence: “Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” Maybe part of what the Psalmist has lost here is the hope that God would intervene and make everything okay for this hurting person.
The Book of Jeremiah captures the anguish of God, grieving the final failure of the ancient Israelite culture to avoid the hammer of Babylon. According to Jeremiah Israel meets its just desserts due to its failure to follow God’s ways of justice and shalom. However, there is genuine loss expressed here, God’s loss. God grieves the loss of what might have been, the loss of a people’s chance to break free from the bonds of power politics.
We who have ever been idealistic, sharing these ideals with others and setting out to make them real can relate to this kind of grief. Most of us idealists have messed up, even botched, our attempts to create something new. We fight and protect our turf and put ideals over people. Our dreams come crashing down. Once we accept the reality of our failure, we are left to grieve. Most likely, God shares that grief.
A third text, John 11, includes the verse “Jesus wept” (v. 35). I understand this as a simple statement of Jesus sharing the grief of Lazarus’s loved ones at his death.
We can certainly relate to this kind of grief. Someone we love dies. Death, like nothing else, forces us to accept loss.
Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff was forced to come to terms with the sudden death of a 25-year-old son. “We live in a time and place where, over and over, when confronted with something unpleasant we pursue not coping but overcoming. Death shatters our illusion that we can make do without coping.” He is saying that we simply can not avoid or overcome the unpleasantness of death of a loved one. It forces us to grieve, to find some way simply to cope, to find some way to get by amidst the pain – because we can not escape the pain.
So when we grieve we accept loss. Maybe the loss of the hope of easy happiness and contentment and close communion with God. Maybe the loss of the ideal of successful community and genuinely making a difference in the world. Maybe – most starkly of all – the loss of a loved one. This last loss hits us all, and has the potential to shatter even the strongest of us.
It is very interesting to read the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis’s last book – A Grief Observed. This book essentially tells of Lewis being undone by the death of his wife. He wrote so self-confidently and maybe even smugly of God in earlier books such as Mere Christianity and the Chronicles of Narnia. However, with this death, he is left to flounder and doubt and struggle through his pain and grief. From the afterword, written after Lewis’s death by a friend, we learn that he never did fully recover from the pain of his grief. Nonetheless, I believe that in its honesty and sincere grappling, A Grief Observed might be Lewis’s most profound book.
It strikes me that grief is a central key to spirituality. In a unique way, it deepens and potenitally enlivens our souls. It helps us to gain perspective, and it helps us to tap into something deep and soulful which is perhaps not accessible any other way.
Grief helps us to be aware of life as it really is. Grief helps us to realize, to feel, hopefully to accept, that life includes pain, life includes loss. Out of his grief, Wolterstorff learns “we all suffer. For we all prize and love; and in this present existence of ours, prizing and loving yield suffering. Love in our world is suffering love.” This is so because death awaits us all – with its accompanying separation. All relationships end. Wolterstorff conclusion that “prizing and loving yield suffering” sounds differently as the anguished voice of a father grieving the loss of a beloved son than as an abstract philosophical argument. Such a realization, that all love is suffering love, is little consolation. Amidst the grief of an immediate loss, there are few consolations. Nothing takes the pain away. However, that is part of the point.
Deep grief forces us to feel. Painful as that is, this is a gift. Genuinely to feel is to be alive, to be aware that being alive has bitterness along with the sweetness. Once we know the beautiful subtlety of the bittersweetness, though, we will likely lose our foolish desire for sweetness all by itself. We will likely see that that desire is a desire to deny life as it actually is.
I am learning to know myself and my feelings, deepened by my own experiences of grief, better. I listen to my friends in their grief. I have read a few accounts of this process. I have reflected on the biblical story. From all this, I am led to conclude that in grief, in clearing away our fantasies and wishful thinking about how we wish life was; here is where we likely will find God.
Based on my own experiences, and much more the experiences of most people over the course of history; it is hard for me to believe in a God who reaches down and directs the events of human history. It is hard for me to believe in a God who fixes things on demand. It is hard to believe in a God who finds us parking spaces or who will cause us to prosper financially if we only believe hard enough. However, I can affirm a God who weeps when I weep, who shares in the world’s pain and grief.
“We’re in it together,” Wolterstorff writes, “God and us, together in the history of our world. The history of our world is the history of our suffering together.”
I am not sure how God’s presence in our suffering, God sharing our grief, will bring about some final healing for the world. I guess I am actually not sure that this final healing will even happen – though I hope for it. The most I can say is that God’s presence does enliven our souls. God’s presence in grief points beyond, it witnesses to something good, something worth hoping for, something worth trusting in.
We may see the fruit of God’s presence in this list from Wolterstorff. This is what he hopes for from living with grief. Sympathy for the world’s wounds can be enlarged by our anguish. Love for those around us can be expanded. Gratitude for what is good can flame up. Insight can be deepened. Commitment to what is important can be strengthened.
I have seen this kind of fruit emerge from grieving people. Sympathy, love, gratitude, insight, commitment – these emerge from pain and grief. They remain stifled when we avoid pain, when we hide from grief, when we seek to maintain total control, when we follow the path of denial. Really, part of what grief is about is relinquishing a quest for control, accepting our lack of control, opening ourselves to our feelings of pain and helplessness. The confession of faith is that in this very relinquishment comes an answer from God. This answer may perhaps be found in the growth in sympathy, love, gratitude, insight, commitment which Wolterstorff hopes for. This answer provides a basis for trust, for resting on the goodness of God’s love.
I have always thought that my life has been remarkably easy and pain-free. In many ways, compared to most people, it has. However, as I have learned more about loss and pain and grief, I see that I have had plenty of loss, plenty to grieve. If I have, I feel pretty safe in generalizing that probably just about everyone else has too. We all need to grow in our self-awareness, to feel our pain, and to find ways to live creatively with this pain we all have.
My most obvious losses have been the deaths of loved ones. I have experienced relatively little of this. However, losing my close friend Rod in high school and my grandfather and father around twenty years ago and my mother in 1999 have been cause enough for plenty of grief.
Recently I read a magazine article on how sons and fathers are trying to connect more closely emotionally, and finding it difficult. As I read the article I found myself crying. This was not so much over regrets over what my dad’s and my relationship lacked. I’m grateful we were as close as we were. I think mostly I cried just because I miss him. When I have a cold and I hear myself cough, I hear my dad. I must have inherited his cough. Now, it was very probable that he was going to die before me, so I would have grieved his death no matter what. However, I do wish he would have been around awhile longer.
Part of relinquishment, though, is accepting that he went when he did. It is living with the sadness, even making friends with the sadness. The sadness I feel is a mark of love. The emptiness I feel is actually a part of me I will always take with me. That is okay. In fact it is a sign of me being alive. It’s part of my soul.
William James described what he called the twice-born person. He meant a person who had experienced some major brokenness in life, maybe the death of a childhood faith, the failure of an ideal, or some tragedy. Some people succumb to the brokenness, remaining bitter, building up walls of avoidance. Though alive, they live as if dead. Another, much smaller, group of people has the good fortune of never really knowing such brokenness. For them, one birth is enough and their lives continue peacefully and contentedly. In some ways these people are lucky, but they also are likely to be a bit superficial.
James’s twice-born people are those who somehow find ways to return from the brokenness. He is not so much talking about overt religious conversion as a more subtle renewal of creativity, of hopefulness. This renewal is a bit chastened. Due to the “death,” the direct experience of life’s dark side, such people can never be quite as care-free, happy-go-lucky, and simple in their optimism about life. However, they also know that life is good (over all), they are realistic about themselves and about what to expect. They live within limits, but they keep growing and learning.
These likely are the people who know how to grieve.
I mentioned earlier C. S. Lewis’s book A Grief Observed. I find it interesting to compare Lewis with someone from the previous generation, Oscar Wilde. At first glance, these two have little in common. Lewis was an apologist for relgious orthodoxy, Wilde a high-living, free-spirited skeptic. However, I think we can characterize both of them, in the writing each did for most of their lives, as being “clever.” I do not use that word in a totally positive sense. They both appear smug, witty, self-assured. Consequently, they both appear a bit superficial.
However, in each case, near the end of their careers, they received some major trauma. I mentioned Lewis’s wife dying and how that shook him up. Out of this came his book which expressed doubts and fears – and a new depth of spiritual awareness. Wilde had a parallel experience. His life turned upside-down when he faced imprisonment for being a homosexual. He had been married and had some children. He faced separation from all them and died not too much later. However, before he died he wrote De Profundis. This book lacked all the smug cleverness of his earlier writing.
“I bore up against everything with some stubbornness of will and much rebellion of nature, till I had absolutely nothing left in the world but one thing. I had lost my name, my position, my happiness, my freedom, my wealth. I was a prisoner and a pauper. However, I still had my children left. Suddenly they were taken away from me by the law. It was a blow so appalling that I did not know what to do, so I flung myself on my knees and bowed my head and wept.…That moment seemed to save me. I saw then that the only thing for me was to accept everything. Since then – curious as it will no doubt sound – I have been happier. It was of course my soul in its ultimate essence that I had reached. In many ways I had been its enemy, but I found it waiting for me as a friend.”
We see this pattern in the biblical account of ancient Israel and in the story of the Apostle Paul. We see a process of life lived in a self-willed or at least self-satisfied way. Then comes the death experience. Babylon destroys Israel. Paul has his religious certainty shattered when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus. Oscar Wilde goes to prison and loses his children. In the time of deep reflection and brokenness – that is, profound grief – people discover something vital. Israel hears from Isaiah’s prophecies of God’s restoring love. Paul finds a new vocation as a witness to this risen Christ. Oscar Wilde discovers his soul. Out of this comes new insights, deeper insights, trust, and a sense of joy.
Grief may be creative, allowing one to recognize one’s loss, one’s brokenness. In the midst of this brokenness, we discern a God who grieves also. This God feels with us. This God lets us know of life’s goodness, even with its pain. This God calls forth trust.
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984), 80.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 72.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam Books, 1961).
Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 91.
Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 91.
Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 92.
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Library of America, 1987 ).
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis and Other Writings (Penguin, 1973), 169.