in captivitatem redigentes omnem intellectum in obsequium Christi
every thought captive
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.
Buried at the heart of suffering is the deep concern that we have been forsaken. Underneath every question, every grasping to understand, is the search for something - some sign that can assure us we are not alone, that we have not been left or forgotten.
Out of the depths, we cry in the desperate hope that we have not been abandoned, that the silence is not absence, or indifference, or inattentiveness. And we pause, we wait.
In this silent space, do not speak answers to unasked questions.
We desire healed wounds, redeemed suffering, defeated evil, but these longings will not be satisfied if we have no one to whom we can cling. We need a grip on a fidelity that is present within the depths. We need the assurance that we are unforsaken.
To suffer with the other is to answer the deep concern that we have been abandoned, that we must fight and fend for ourselves. To suffer with the other is to be a felt presence in the silence. Felt, it flickers hopes, quickening the heart. It binds the first wound - that despairing thought that there is no love at the heart of things.
There is no redemption or defeat of suffering without presence.
Today, I heard redemptive words. He said, “I’m so sorry. I thought about you the whole time I was preaching.” It was an aside, a thoughtful small gesture grounded in a deep concern, an abiding care to say words that can be credible in the presence of devastating suffering. And these words were salve.
We go to the graves. We go to sit before matter and weight, stone monuments to death's power.
Each visit - an act of resistance. Each visit - a testament to love's hope that the finality of death can be unraveled, that Love can dull death's sting, that what has been lost can be restored.
We go to the graves. We stand absorbing the matter of an always present absence, the weight of separation. We go to the graves, but we go with hope.
You saw my frailty and you understood it; you appreciated it in ways others could not. But more than this, you received my frailty and made it your own. You did not admire it from afar; you came close and took on infirmity for me. You did not see fit to remain strong from a distance, you came near knowing that you might become weak. And now you are weak on account of me. We are weak together, fellow-travelers in frailty. Together, we now share a common frailty. And you share in it because you loved me, because you are friend.
We shared a love for him. And I am better for it. It is not merely the fact that I loved him that has made me better. I would have been better if it was my love alone. But we loved jointly; we loved him together as a family. This has multiplied my love.
Why is this? Why is it that loving shared has made my love more complete?
I see one way. The fact that I could experience you loving him, that I could see the distinct ways in which you sought his good, has drawn my attention to aspects of love that I might have otherwise missed. Your bodily experience of nurturing him has imaged for me what it means to receive and welcome another, what it means to offer hospitality. All of my welcoming now stands in relation to your physical act of love. It is an embodied act of tending to the needs of the other. It is exemplified in your selfless care.
I see another way. The fact that you both loved him in distinct ways has drawn my attention to facets of his value that I might not otherwise appreciate. That he was little brother, that you knew his frame intimately as it stretched your abdomen - I can’t know what these are like. They are separate from me, but the fact that we love him together means I can experience them within your perspective. I have come to appropriate them as my own indirectly.
I see yet another way. Your loves for him were and are distinct from mine, but the fact that we love him jointly means that I participate in your individual love for him. In this way, my love is multiplied and extended. And the fact that you both could experience my love for him distinct as it was from your own has brought you into my love for him as well. This love multiplies; it does not divide or diminish.
My love for him would have been enough to make me better. But our love together as a family has deepened and extended me in ways alone I could not have achieved. I am better because we loved him together. I am better now because we continue to love him together. Our sorrows are shared; so are our joys. Our love is shared, multiplied and multiplying.
I don’t sit here often. I walk through. I let my hand gently touch his name as I enter. I hardly stop.
But today, I sit and stare at my reflection outlined vaguely in the columbarium walls. And I stay.
My hands ache to hold him again - a minute more. To see him grow like his brother - a year more. To watch him feel the warmth, and grace, and joy of his mother - how much more would have been enough?
There aren’t enough days. There isn’t enough time.
So, I sit looking at a name and dates: birth and death separated by hours. And I feel the weight again.
Those were beautiful hours - better than I could possibly understand. If only we could have stayed there. I would have built a tent. But we had to come down; we had to walk away. Another step further today.