in captivitatem redigentes omnem intellectum in obsequium Christi
every thought captive
How many words to say one simple thing?
How many thoughts to convey something so singular?
How many pages filled?
Maybe just one - just one for each day dwelling in absences;
just one for every loving word lost in vacant spaces;
just one frail and failing word that says less than I mean and conveys less than you deserve.
Just one more emptying word still not enough.
I used to think that hope was my possession. I used to think I was its source. It was some interior strength that sustained it. There was a reserve I guarded against disappointment and sorrow's threat.
Now I doubt this picture.
I find hope in me when I couldn't be its author. I find hope in me when I've resigned every possibility. I find hope in me when I'm undone and unguarded, when I'm weak. Unbidden, I find this gift which has been present all along but unperceived.
In the end, it sustains me.
I want to say that grief can be fruitful. That it can open us to the manifold presence of grace in our lives.
This is what I want to say; and this is all I want to say.
I want to stop there on a note of resolution, a note that seems hopeful. I think that would be more comforting.
But if I am being truthful, I can't say this alone; I have to say more. I have to add this: whether or not grief opens us up, it always divides. It severs moments, and joys, and healing.
We might enfold loss into a life we would not wish away. From this loss, deep love and joy might grow. We might find sustaining hope and stillness. But all our life we will piecing together the threads grief tore.
And again, grief divides.
It divides what I want to say from what I can say.
I think I have a dim view of the shape of an endurance.
I think I have some darkened grasp of the breadth of patience.
I've studied this suffering long enough to taste bitter and its sweet.
But I still cannot fathom healing.
There are gentle, plaintive cries which echo,
there is the feeling of warmth slowing fading,
there are those hours of hushed and unhurried peace -
fault lines tracing through what once seemed strong.
Healing cannot be erasing; it cannot be undoing.
If it is a restoring, to whom or to what will I return?
Or, is it that I will reclaim or receive something lost?
You ask whether I am healing.
I don't know what is healing.
All my writing and rambling could be explained as an attempt to resist a deep, awful temptation. It is a trial of both heart and mind: buried underneath thousands of words, an anxiety that whatever meaning I've tried to coax from this experience wasn't there to be found. I have constructed a narrative to avoid the coldness I feel. Thought and emotion claw to the surface and betray me.
What is the sense?
Acknowledging the temptation leaves me colder. I know the suggestion is untrue. I know how we have grown; I know how we have been changed. I know how we loved him and how we were received.
There is the sense.
I keep saying this to myself - I make it a habit, repeat the refrain, pronounce each true word deliberately.
But these errant affections, these undoing thoughts - this nonsense - accompany me now as they did then.
If you would know me, know what tries me.
Again, to the depths. To the minutes and moments. To the dark, still buried love. Again, to the depths. Through the fog, the fog and shadows. To that one light, faint and fading. Again, to the depths. With strained, staggering mind wishing to dwell, hold still. Again, to the depths. Will you come? Will you, again? Hope stronger than mine.
God who comforts, grant to me this grace: that when unexpected grief hits, you will steady me until I find breath.
And grant this further grace: that when this grief blinkers my eyes, you will preserve me until I find sight.
And grant just this one final grace: that when it is all I can do not to cry, you will give to me the tears you wept instead.
Gracious God, comfort me.
I have given voice to many doubts, to just as many questions and concerns. I have raised them alone with sighs, quietly with trusted friends, and openly in front of strangers. I have lifted laments, proclaiming them testaments to trust in the fidelity of God. I have addressed God in the hope that he would make his presence known, or in anger that all is not well and he seems indifferent. I have argued that this is a form of faith - a faith unsatisfied but faith nonetheless. I don’t doubt the truth of these claims.
But not all laments or complaints are signs of faith. Not every voiced doubt is a doubt pursuing resolution in the friendship of God. Not every question or concern comes from an enduring hope that at the bottom of things there is Love.
And I see in some of my words, a sneaking pride - pretension and presumption joined with a cynical, creeping despair. And I know that these are the long effects of my grief.
Grief heightens one’s ability to sift wheat from chaff. It sharpens one’s vision to see those who will share in one’s suffering. It teaches one to refuse false comforts and poorly spoken truths. But these same capacities create barriers. They can make one resistant to love and its demands. Grief can harden a heart.
Grief’s ability to harden a person is not wholly bad. As frail children vulnerable in the world, we need a strength that can fortify us. But we can become so hardened that we become brittle. We need strength, but we need a strength that bends. And it is here that grief speaks a lie. Or, should I say, it is here that I tell myself a lie and attribute it to grief. I tell myself that I pray difficult and troubled prayers from a discontented faith, but I refuse to acknowledge that the same lament can be voiced by both hardened and supple hearts. And I wonder which heart I have.
Lord God, give me a faith that can pray difficult prayers. But more than this, grant to Your child a teachable spirit that I might pray with faith and humility.
I do not cling to faith as if I have some kind of grip on it. No, faith enfolds me as a stretcher. And I find myself carried to the wounded One who alone can heal.
I do not hold to hope as if I have the energy to carry it. No, hope holds and stays me on the course. And I find myself in a company of the fatigued in whose Presence there is refreshing.
I do not seize love as if, by my grasping, I have the ability to make it mine. No, Love visits and bids me welcome. And I find myself together in the presence of Joy.
It is a great generosity that we have these gifts. But they do not belong to us as possession. No, they are the shared ground and source by which we come to be whole.
And they are enacted within the grace of fellow travelers. It is the work of those who carry that envelops me in faith. It is the companionship of those whose hopes I borrow that strengthens halting steps. It is a consoling love whose abiding melds joy with the sorrow.
I ask only for a heart receptive to these gifts and for words by which I express proper thanks.
I often write about words that injure the suffering. I often describe ways in which we unintentionally wound those who grieve. I seldom recount the words that offered healing, or detail a presence that cuts through as light and clarity, the friendships that have restored hope.
Perhaps it is because the injuries are so common and so avoidable that they are so salient. It is easy to fixate; it is important to ask others to avoid re-injuring those who have had enough. Perhaps it is because redeeming words and presence are rarely visible and so particular that it is difficult to describe them in ways that capture their significance.
But it is essential to offer portraits of those have been ministers of grace. It is necessary to make visible the forms of presence that are gifts to those who suffer.
I could tell many stories, but this will suffice for today. He came near. He prayed only for courage and grace. He etched the sign of the cross on my son’s brow. He anointed his head, touching him tenderly. He sat next to me taking in the presence of my son who had been promised nothing and who could do nothing but receive love. And I received as much love from his presence with me. He sat and listened; he did not speak idle or intrusive words. He brought others near to welcome Sam. And hours later - after the pause of death - he reluctantly spoke to us of his experience as Sam’s breath gave way. His reticence was a clear sign of his singular desire to offer hope. He did not speak false promises, but pointed to the truth of a God whose desire is abundance. And in the shadows of grief, he sought to help us remember well. He listened to broken thoughts spoken in the pain and anger of grief. As invited, he spoke true words about our hope - the hope of those for whom grief is not the final word. He loved quietly, patiently, and without a thought to his own anxieties. I sense that my questions, my wandering and lost thoughts, do not trouble him; if they do, he lifts them up as prayers I won’t hear.
There are many who have offered themselves to us as a comfort. They have never asked for recognition; they have only sought to come near to us. Each has come with tender hearts bent on listening. When invited, they have offered life-giving words of shared suffering. They have invited others to welcome and to know Sam - perhaps the greatest gift anyone could offer us. They have walked with us remembering both the difficult sorrow and the difficult joy; they continue to help us remember rightly and well.
They have, by their quiet, patient, gracious friendship, given to me the ability to trust. May I be such a friend.