“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”
– C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”
Last week one of our good friends suffered the worst kind of tragedy imaginable. My wife, Jen, spent this weekend going to visit our friend and her family to try and provide some sort of communal support. Friends at home and across the country have voiced support, their prayers hastened by modern technology.
Last Friday, as I was telling our church secretary the details for prayer, I finally broke down. All I could think to say was, “This kind of thing just makes us all useless.” That’s not the truth of course – but in the moment it certainly felt that way. And, in all honesty, that “all” was not truly all but something like a royal “we.”
What I really meant is all the people like me – all of us licensed, ordained, ministerial folk (“priesty-pants,” as my Episcopalian friend identifies herself). In the face of that kind of grief, we’re all useless. We ought to stand up and say beautiful, eloquent words that articulate the profound pain and the glorious hope of faith, but really, we’re all hacks.
The truth is, there aren’t words. Grief punches you in the gut and robs any meaning-making vocabulary from all of us (and I mean all of us – everybody). It makes the most well-intentioned phrases of would-be consolers empty and saccharine.
Talking about eternity in the face of death is a hollow promise, for we do not grieve for how much we long for eternity; we grieve for how much we wish the people we love were still here. We can only trust that no Creator would forbid the creation from doing what it was created to do – to feel deeply – to love, to grieve, to mourn, to despair and perhaps, at some point, to once again hope.
It seems prudent at these times to offer prayer, but what does that prayer sound like? A professor in college, when asked by a student how to pray for someone looking for healing, said that he once had a woman named Alice who was dying of cancer approach him for prayer, accompanied by her friends. He was young and idealistic. He offered a beautiful, soaring, eloquent prayer, and felt quite confident that if God could be stirred to action by prayer, then he had undoubtedly swayed all the hosts of heaven.
As the woman’s circle of lifelong friends began voicing tearful prayers, he said he then heard the best, most honest and articulate prayer – one that put to shame his feigned pietism. With a shaky voice, weathered by days of crying and laughing with her dear friend, she said simply, “Lord, here’s Alice.” The best we can often do is remind God and ourselves that people are hurting, that there is pain, real pain – and real grief to be felt – and that no human being is left untouched.
The opening quote hails from one of C.S. Lewis’ last works, “A Grief Observed.” As a sort of mirror-twin to his earlier work, “The Problem of Pain,” Lewis chronicles his own intense personal grief following the death of his wife, Joy Gresham, to bone cancer.
“The Problem of Pain” is rigorously academic and among the most intrinsically theological of all of Lewis’ published works. Conversely, “A Grief Observed” is raw and confessional. If “The Problem of Pain” is intellectually rigorous, then “A Grief Observed” is emotionally honest.
Lewis wavers between doubt and belief, despair and hope. Afraid that these revelations would be rejected by his then faithful evangelical Christian audience, Lewis published it under a pseudonym. Many friends even sent the book to Lewis to encourage him to aid in the process of his own grief.
I find the candor of his words to ring true to what little I can say of grief – that the consolations I or any other sacerdotal figure would commonly be expected to bring can be of little real comfort. They are religious vicissitudes that we use to distract ourselves from the pain itself.
Our best gift can only be to love and to care deeply – to grieve with one another, not simply be moved by pity. Consider the example of Jesus upon hearing of Lazarus’ death: weeping for his friend even as he held the life-giving power of resurrection within himself. This alone to me is enough to suggest that grief demands attention; it cannot simply be pushed aside or overruled. It must be met with a community that holds one another up.
Over the past few days it has crossed my mind more than once that perhaps Christ’s raising of Lazarus did not come as a byproduct of his supernatural, super-human powers, but by the depths of his own love and grief – that by that and that alone, there is strength enough to resurrect the memory of those we love.
When I got in the car to drive home Friday, I was holding things together. I put on a new album I had purchased and had been enjoying all week, hoping to find something to distract me a bit from the pain I felt for our friend.
After putting on my favorite song, the providence of the iPod’s shuffle function landed on a track I had not yet heard (watch the video above). By the middle of the first verse I was in tears, and at the chorus I had to pull the car off the road and collect myself. To find that another has said and expressed the deepest aches of your own soul is a tremendous gift.
Perhaps that is the best – and indeed the only – gift we can share in our grief.