Asking, seeking, knocking … beyond binaries and either/or scenarios … the door, the gate, the Way, the narrow path is love. Themes from Matthew 7.

This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not “what does it say?” but “what am I looking for?” I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” — Rachel Held Evans

Why are you knocking at every door? Go, knock at the door of your own heart. — Rumi

On the other hand, ‘Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? — C.S. Lewis

The moment we begin to seek out love, love begins to seek us out. And to save us. — Paulo Coelho

Always the beautiful answer / who asks a more beautiful question. —e.e. Cummings

Contextually speaking, love is the narrow gate. — Jayson Bradley

We often remain exiles, left outside the rich world of the soul, simply because we are not ready. Our task is to refine our hearts and minds. There is so much blessing and beauty near us that is destined for us, and yet it cannot enter our lives because we are not ready to receive it. The handle is on the inside of the door; only we can open it. Our lack of readiness is often caused by blindness, fear, and lack of self-appreciation. When we are ready, we will be blessed. — John O’Donohue

SONGS about KNOCKING & ASKING:

Resource for more listening and studying: Podcast about Ask and You Will Receive (from BibleProject)


Blessing the Door — Jan Richardson (link to poem)

First let us say / a blessing
upon all who have / entered here before / us.

You can see the sign / of their passage / by the worn place
where their hand rested / on the doorframe
as they walked through, / the smooth sill
of the threshold / where they crossed.

Press your ear / to the door
for a moment before / you enter

and you will hear / their voices murmuring
words you cannot / quite make out
but know / are full of welcome.

On the other side / these ones who wait—
for you, / if you do not / know by now—
understand what / a blessing can do

how it appears like / nothing you expected

how it arrives as / visitor,
outrageous invitation, / child;

how it takes the form / of angel / or dream

how it comes / in words like
How can this be? / and lifted up the lowly;

how it sounds like / in the wilderness / prepare the way.

Those who wait / for you know
how the mark of / a true blessing
is that it will take you / where you did not / think to go.

Once through this door / there will be more:
more doors / more blessings
more who watch and / wait for you

but here / at this door of / beginning
the blessing cannot / be said without you.

So lay your palm / against the frame
that those before you / touched

place your feet / where others paused / in this entryway.

Say the thing that / you most need
and the door will / open wide

and by this word / the door is blessed
and by this word / the blessing is begun
from which / door by door
all the rest / will come.

Text from which we’re drawing this week’s themes: MATTHEW 7: 7-14

Ask, Seek, Knock
– ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.’

‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’

The Golden Rule – In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.’

The Narrow Gate –  ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’

REVELATION 3:20
 
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

COMMENTARY on ENTERING through the NARROW GATE

It’s a life long “finding,” of surrendering to the process of God at work in us. But WE choose that posture of surrender. We choose to open the gate and walk upon the narrow road. And really, what other choice is there to make? —Elisabeth Elliott (full article)

Do for others what you wish others would do for you. Do you want to be treated with respect? Respect others. Do you expect compassion and the benefit of the doubt? Extend it to others. Do you want to be served? Serve others. He then tells us this one principle sums up the entire Old Testament. … Contextually speaking, love is the narrow gate ... All the destruction, pain and turmoil in life comes from our inability to put others first. Love leads to life, both here and in the world to come. —Jayson Bradley, Patheos (full article)

The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation, the mystery we’re examining, more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart—chaos—invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites, and sometimes forces, the soul to go to a new place because the old place is falling apart. Most of us would never go to new places in any other way…. This is when you need patience, guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening your controls and certitudes. Perhaps Jesus is describing this phenomenon when he says, “It is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it” … In moments of insecurity and crisis, shoulds and oughts don’t really help; they just increase the shame, guilt, pressure, and likelihood of backsliding. It’s the deep yesses that carry us through. It’s that deeper something we are strongly for that allows us to wait it out. — Richard Rohr (full article)

Contemplation is meeting as much reality as we can handle in its most simple and immediate form, without filters, judgments, and commentaries. Now you see why it is so rare and, in fact, “the narrow road that few walk on” … The only way you can contemplate is by recognizing and relativizing your own compulsive mental grids—your practiced ways of judging, critiquing, blocking, and computing everything… When your mental judgmental grid and all its commentaries are placed aside, God finally has a chance to get through to you, because your pettiness is at last out of the way. Then Truth stands revealed! You will begin to recognize that we all carry the Divine Indwelling within us and we all carry it equally. That will change your theology, your politics, and your entire worldview. In fact, it is the very birth of the soul. — Richard Rohr (full article)

I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside. — Rumi

ON KNOCKING at DOORS
 
If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you’re sure to wake someone up. — Henry Wordsworth Longfellow

The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Go to your bosom: Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know. — William Shakespeare

Even when opportunity knocks, a man still has to get up off his seat and open the door. — Douglas MacArthur

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. — Proverb (attributed to Milton Berle)

A pessimist is somebody who complains about the noise when opportunity knocks. — Oscar Wilde

The most sacred invitation that a person can extend to us is to invite us into their pain. But that means that we have to choose to knock on a door that we often prefer to pretend is not there. ― Craig D. Lounsbrough

Rain puts a hole in stone because of its constancy, not its force. Just keep knocking on doors until the right one opens — Joseph Gerber

Opportunity may knock only once but temptation leans on the door bell — Oprah Winfrey

The first time when I was organizing, I went out and started knocking on doors to see if people were registered to vote. I was a door knocker. I didn’t even have the confidence that I could register people, so I just was out there door knocking. That was my first experience. — Dolores Huerta

Guest House — Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

SEEKING

Love seeks only one thing: the good of the loved. It leaves all other secondary effects to take care of themselves. There, love is its own reward. — Thomas Merton

There are times to stay put, and what you want will come to you, and there are times to go out into the world and find such a thing for yourself. ― Lemony Snicket

I go to seek a Great Perhaps. That’s why I’m going. So I don’t have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps.― John Green

And I shall seek you endlessly, for
I am a moth, and you’re my flame
Knowing that I’ll burn at your touch
I return, for you’re a fire; untamed …
― Zubair Ahsan

…there was no point in sighing after what I could not have. It only distracted me from what I did have. ― Robin Hobb

Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. ― Albert Camus

Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds — justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner. ― Anne Rice

Thus Gotama [Buddha] walked toward the town to gather alms, and the two samanas recognized him solely by the perfection of his repose, by the calmness of his figure, in which there was no trace of seeking, desiring, imitating, or striving, only light and peace. ― Hermann Hesse

WHEN TRUTH KNOCKS: Buddhist Story

A young widower was devoted to his little son. But while he was away on business, the whole village was burned to the ground by bandits, who also kidnapped the little boy. When the father returned and found only ruins, he was utterly heartbroken. He thought that the charred remains of a little child were of his son, so he organized a full cremation, collected the ashes, and carried them with him always in a special bag.
     One day, his son managed to escape from the bandit kidnappers and made his way back to his home. In the meantime, his father had rebuilt the house. When the little boy arrived late one night, he knocked on the door. His father, kneeling at the altar he had made to memorialize his son called out, “Who’s there?”
     “It’s me, your son; please papa, let me in!”
     The father, still burdened by his grief thought this must be some wretched boy making fun of his grieving and shouted out, “Go away! Leave me alone! My son is dead!”
     The boy knocked again and again, calling for his father to open the door and let him in. The father, refusing to answer the door kept calling out, “Go away! Leave me alone!” And at last, the boy gave up and went away, never to return again.
     After he had told this story, the Buddha added: “If you cling to an idea as the unalterable truth, then when the truth comes and knocks on your door, you will not be able to open the door and accept it.”
Udana Sutta

COMMENTARY on KNOCKING & ASKING

The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It seems to me that Jesus’ words are a clear directive. Ask, Jesus says. Seek. Knock.
     And then, if I’ve got this right, Jesus follows up a few verses later by saying that God will actually respond … To me. To you. To, oh, anyone who asks. And God will do it without discretion or conditions. Without caution or prudence. Without making a list first of who has a right to which truth or who will handle the answers the best.
     The revolutionary, almost subversive, thing about asking is that it goes beyond making it OK to have secret questions and inner doubts and gives us permission to raise our hands in God’s classroom with a “Pardon me, but I don’t get it.” Or “Really, God? Can you explain further?” Or “I just can’t bring myself to believe what the rest of your class is telling me.”
     I suspect … that we’re somehow expected to keep asking. Out loud. And to keep seeking. And to keep knocking …
     … questions fall out all over the place, raw and beautiful in their authenticity … making people uncomfortable – or giddy … the way we engage our conversations may be more important than our conclusions, for if we abandon love, kindness, forbearance and gentleness in favor of fear, self-righteousness and anger, what have we gained with a mere conclusion? And the second thing she said is I wonder if we trust Jesus to be enough?
     …. “What if the root word of aspiration isn’t only to aspire to? What if the root word of aspiration is also to aspirate? To expel or dislodge the things that make people choke? To tell a truth that is so wild and so free that it helps people learn to breathe? What if you’re called to be that kind of aspiration?” And I thought, by God, if this life is about helping people breathe, I can do that.
     Ask. Seek. Knock. Breathe.
     I used to prefer for God to live in a box. Neat and tidy. Quiet and nice. Now my life is full of questions. It’s messier and louder, more disruptive and fulfilling, than I imagined. And I? I can finally breathe. — Betth Woolsey (full article)

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
     … He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand?    
     … Of course it’s easy enough to say that God seems absent at our greatest need because He is absent — non-existent. But then why does He seem so present when, to put it frankly, we don’t ask for Him?
     … And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually come to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help … Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear. — C.S. Lewis (article)

Mystery is what happens to us when we allow life to evolve rather than having to make it happen all the time. It is the strange knock at the door, the sudden sight of an unceremoniously blooming flower, an afternoon in the yard, a day of riding the midtown bus. Just to see. Just to notice. Just to be there. There is something holy-making about simply presuming that what happens to us in any given day is sent to awaken our souls to something new: another smell, a different taste, a moment when we allow ourselves to lock eyes with a stranger, to smile a bit, to nod our heads in greeting. Who knows? Maybe one of those things will open us to the refreshing memory of pain, a poignant reminder of glory, a breathless moment of astonishment, a sense of the presence of God in life. — Sr Joan Chittister (full article)

ASKING

Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. — Brene Brown

Ask for help. Not because you are weak. But because you want to remain strong. — Les Brown

I was looking for myself and asking everyone but myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. — Ralph Ellison

A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change. — Warren Berger

Don’t be afraid to look again at everything you’ve ever believed … I believe the more we search, the more we delve into the human teachings about the nature and God of life, which are in fact are the teachings of all the great religions traditions, the closer we come to a mature understanding of the Godself … In other words, doubt, questions, drive us to look at how we ourselves need to grow in wisdom, age and grace.  The courage to face questions is the first step in that process. — Joan Chittister

Instead of anxiety about chasing a passion that you’re not even feeling, do something a lot simpler: Just follow your curiosity. — Elizabeth Gilbert

A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea. — John Anthony Ciardi

We live in the world our questions create. — David Cooperrider

Ask me not what I have, but what I am. — Heirnrich Heine

… Ask yourself these four questions: Why? Why not? Why not me? Why not now? — James Allen

You get in life what you have the courage to ask for. — Oprah Winfrey

Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future. — Deepak Chopra

To ask the right question is harder than to answer it. — Georg Cantor

Contrary to some common assumptions, Jesus is not the ultimate Answer Man, but more like the Great Questioner. In the Gospels Jesus asks many more questions than he answers. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 of which he only answers 3. Asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings. In fact, for every question he answers directly he asks—literally—a hundred. Jesus is the Question considers the questions Jesus asks—what they tell us about Jesus and, more important, what our responses might say about what it means to follow Him. Through Jesus’ questions, he modeled the struggle, the wondering, the thinking it through that helps us draw closer to God and better understand, not just the answer, but ourselves, our process and ultimately why questions are among Jesus’ most profound gifts for a life of faith. — Martin Copenhaver

Acknowledging the challenges of these times: responding to loss & trauma

Your hearts are troubled,
and it is no sacrilege to let them be so …
— Maren Tirabassi

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow.
Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.
― C.S. Lewis

Your name is upon my tongue
your image is in my sight
your memory is in my heart
where can I send these words that I write ?
— Rumi

Naming Change and Loss: Recently, our community has experienced deep challenges, traumas and losses. These are events that occur beyond the pandemic’s complexities, or are exacerbated because of them. These range from life-limiting diagnoses and deaths to accidents and mental health crises. They may also include other life-altering changes, such as major shifts in relationship status, safety and wellbeing, shelter/housing, vocation/livelihood, and/or economic viability.

Some of these circumstances are reversible. Some are permanent and irrevocable. And heartbreaking.

We have been working on hope and resilience for months now. Coping. Managing. Not just surviving, but thriving at times. Reinventing ourselves. Being creative. Optimistic. Yes, and we’re good at it. We keep rising up and responding.

Today … let us, just for a moment, bear witness to the great sorrows that have also shaken us in the past several weeks, or in the last 24 hours. This message is to acknowledge wherever you may find yourself in this reality, in this time. Below are a few offerings. They presume to make things right or better. They don’t pretend to fix or explain anything. They simply articulate something about where we find ourselves. Just for now, let us be present to the truth and pain of these times, as well as the energetic ‘recovery and reopening and renewal’ strategies we implement.

Let us say here, too, that no words by any person, even those who have also known great suffering, are equal to all the realities that are happening among us. Accept whatever grace or support you may find in these words, put down what isn’t helpful or relevant to your situation. Know these are offered with love, but what we truly mean to offer is our presence in your life.  — Rev Gail Pomeroy Doktor

Songs:
Seasons of Love from the musical RENT
I Will Remember You by Sarah McLachlan
Holes in the Night Sky by the Smith Fraser Duo
Let It Be by The Beatles
Candle in the Wind by Elton John
What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong
Stars by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel
Holes in the Floor of Heaven by Steve Wariner
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? performed by Carole King & James Taylor

Blessing for the Brokenhearted (excerpt) — Jan Richardson
Let us agree for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.
Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound,
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still …

For Grief (excerpt)— John O’Donohue 

When you lose
someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you
gets fragile,
Your thoughts
make your eyes unsure
… words have no confidence.
Your heart has
grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss
has wounded others too,
No one knows what
has been taken from you
When the silence
of absence deepens.

… There are days
when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.

Days when you have
your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle
of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.

It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain
faithful to itself.
More than you,
it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.

Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form
of your departed;
And, when the work
of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul
where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.

Musings on Grief, Loss & Sudden Change

This business of having been issued a body is deeply confusing… Bodies are so messy and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says “We think we’re humans having spiritual experiences, but we’re really spirits having human experiences,” I (a) think it’s true and (b) want to ram the car. — Anne Lamott

The Abyss of Grief (full essay here): Suddenly, the sacred fire I have been chasing all my life engulfed me. I was plunged into the abyss … So shattered I could not see my own hand in front of my face … Immolated, I found myself resting in fire. Drowning, I surrendered, and discovered I could breathe under water. … This was the sacred emptiness … And I hated it. I didn’t want vastness of being. I wanted my baby back. But I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, “Yes.” I didn’t do it right away, nor was I able to sustain it when I did manage a breath of surrender. But gradually I learned to soften into the pain and yield to my suffering … I became acutely aware of my connectedness … everywhere … who had lost  … who were, at this very moment, hearing the impossible news … Grief strips us. According to the mystics, this is good news. … Few among us would ever opt for the narrow gate of grief, even if it were guaranteed to lead us to God. But if our most profound losses—the death of a loved one, the ending of a marriage or a career, catastrophic disease or alienation from community—bring us to our knees before that threshold, we might as well enter … — Mirabai Starr for the Center for Action and Contemplation

Resources

  • Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. This is a book available through the library or White Birch Books (place an order); it’s also a community-building resource through their website. Resources for grief due to death, domestic violence/trauma/abuse and other challenges.
  • Resources from the Forgiveness Project: some resources for the process and journey of forgiveness – forgiveness toolkit.
  • Guided Meditation for encountering grief: Joan Halifax

DON’T HESITATE — Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and
Unexpectedly feel joy,
Don’t hesitate.
Give in to it.
There are plenty
Of lives and whole towns
Destroyed or about to be.
We are not wise,
And not very often kind.
And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left.
Perhaps this is its way
Of fighting back, that sometimes
Something happens
Better than all the riches
Or power in the world.
It could be anything,
But very likely
You notice it in the instant
When love begins.
Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is,
Don’t be afraid
Of its plenty.
Joy is not made
To be a crumb.

ANTIDOTES to FEAR of DEATH
— Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Kindness (excerpt)
— Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know
what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted
and carefully saved …
… You must see how
this could be you,
… someone who journeyed
through the night with plans
and the simple breath
that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow
as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

The Peace of Wild Things
— Wendell Berry

When despair for the world
Grows in me
And I wake in the night
At the least sound
In fear of what my life
And my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down
Where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water,
And the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives
With forethought of grief.
I come into the presence
Of still water.
And I feel above me
The day-blind stars
Waiting with their light.
For a time
I rest in the grace
Of the world,
And am free.

Excerpt from writings by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Contrary to the general assumption, the first days of grief are not the worst. The immediate reaction is usually shock and numbing disbelief. One has undergone an amputation. After shock comes acute early grief which is a kind of “condensed presence” — almost a form of possession. One still feels the lost limb down to the nerve endings. It is as if the intensity of grief fused the distance between you and the dead. Or perhaps, in reality, part of one dies. Like Orpheus, one tries to follow the dead on the beginning of their journey. But one cannot, like Orpheus, go all the way, and after a long journey one comes back. If one is lucky, one is reborn. Some people die and are reborn many times in their lives. For others the ground is too barren and the time too short for rebirth. Part of the process is the growth of a new relationship with the dead, that “véritable ami mort” Saint-Exupéry speaks of. Like all gestation, it is a slow dark wordless process. While it is taking place one is painfully vulnerable. One must guard and protect the new life growing within– like a child.

One must grieve, and one must go through periods of numbness that are harder to bear than grief. One must refuse the easy escapes offered by habit and human tradition. The first and most common offerings of family and friends are always distractions (“Take her out”–“Get her away” –“Change the scene”–“Bring in people to cheer her up”–“Don’t let her sit and mourn” [when it is mourning one needs]). On the other hand, there is the temptation to self-pity or glorification of grief. “I will instruct my sorrows to be proud,”  Constance cries in a magnificent speech in Shakespeare’s King John.  Despite her words, there is not aristocracy of grief. Grief is a great leveler. There is no highroad out.

Courage is a first step, but simply to bear the blow bravely is not enough. Stoicism is courageous, but it is only a halfway house on the long road. It is a shield, permissible for a short time only. In the end, one has to discard shields and remain open and vulnerable. Otherwise, scar tissue will seal off the wound and no growth will follow. To grow, to be reborn, one must remain vulnerable– open to love but also hideously open to the possibility of more suffering.

More Musings

Most of us do as well as possible, and some of it works okay, and we try to release that which doesn’t and which is never going to. … Making so much of it work is the grace of it; and not being able to make it work is double grace. Grace squared. — Anne Lamott

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves the for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself. — Joan Didion, Year of Magical Thinking

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

— Maya Angelou

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