This Presence is so immense, yet so humble; awe-inspiring yet so gentle, limitless, yet so intimate, tender and personal. I know that I am known. Everything in my life is transparent in this Presence. It knows everything about me –all my weaknesses, brokenness, sinfulness –and still loves me infinitely. This Presence is healing, strengthening, refreshing –just by its Presence. It is nonjudgmental, self-giving, seeking no reward, boundless in compassion. It is like coming home to a place I should never have left, to an awareness that was somehow always there, but which I did not recognize. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart
This is the prayer that frames the beginning of my centering prayer practice—when I choose to do it. Lately, I haven’t been making that choice.
I left an awareness of the immense presence that knows me. My weaknesses, brokenness and yes, sinfulness—a word I reluctantly use—are evident to me. I am judgmental, selfish and desperately trying to manage my way, and also the way of those closest to me.
At the beginning of August, a few weeks after arriving in our new city, I happened to listen to a podcast on grief. Grief exposes us. I hadn’t fully acknowledged that I am grieving the loss of my job, giving away all my books that implicate my professional self, and the material stuff we were rid of that I’d put emotional, financial, and physical effort into, and the settled-ness that I longed for and I thought I was achieving.
As I listened, I realized my need to create space to more consciously grieve, to even invite grief, because it was surely coming out in other, not so life-giving, ways.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that sadness does not sink a person. It is the energy a person spends trying to avoid sadness that does that. So what do I do with the sadness I feel? The seemingly unexplainable sadness that I think I should magically work my way out of? Are these feelings self-centered? Are they just “in the way” of moving on to the abundant life I imagine?
Lament is a word I sometimes casually use. I lament a lost opportunity and I lament how I fail to be the person I think I should be. According to an online dictionary lament (noun) is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow and as a verb means to mourn, to express one’s deep grief about or express regret or disappointment over something considered unsatisfactory, unreasonable, or unfair.
The origin of the word lament, from French and Latin, meant to weep and wail. According to a scholarly view of lament I learned that the performance of lament is viewed as a practice of an “other” less civilized group or person. No wonder the use of the word has been drastically reduced in our lexicon over the last hundred or more years. And more than that, lament as a response to grieving seems not only archaic, but also not understood in our contemporary lives of faith.
The Christian response to loss seems to be that we should have more faith, we should repent for making something more important than God, and we should be grateful for what we do have, for God’s grace and blessing. And, I have felt shame for wallowing in my sadness and for not skipping on by my losses to the grace of living.
The stories of Job and Hannah from the Old Testament are two instances I have encountered lately of faithful people pouring out their sadness to God, unedited, without rationalizing the blessedness of life. Hannah (1 Samuel: 1) poured out her anguish unedited by the exceeding kindness of her husband and the misunderstanding of the priest. Job’s lament allowed him to express his anger with God and to engage deeply with a personal God.
Before reflecting or editing is key here. I want to acknowledge that I do reflect and edit what I feel that tends to either suppress or glorify my sadness. Allowing myself to feel sorrow and express that sorrow is not a lack of trust in God.
Walter Brueggemann names the Psalms that are laments “Psalms of disorientation.” I can identify with that naming. Disorientation more aptly describes my need for lament. These Psalms of disorientation call “attention to the reality of human loss and human pain without making moral judgments about whose fault it is—it is simply a given of human life that needs to be processed theologically. The disorientation I am experiencing might be God’s invitation to lament.
I am lamenting losing my job and comfortable home. While I know it is for the better for both Mitch and me (whoops, reflection slipped in), it is a loss particularly of an identity and an illusion of settledness and a sense of imagined community and purpose.
I am lamenting things we gave away—things I felt sure about in the moment—my patio furniture that was old but comfortable and that would have filled one of my two outdoor patios, the green rug that I was tired of and that then looked so good after the movers left, the stereo cabinet my uncle made that somehow provided a sense of history but only held the TV. I recall my prayer at the time: to know the right thing to do when I needed to do it and to have people and situations that need what I have to become apparent. I desperately want to trust that this was true.
I just finished reading Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese that is a story of deep lament. Sixteen-year-old Franklin Starlight is asked to accompany his estranged alcoholic father on his journey toward death. Along the way, Franklin cares for his dying father and painfully witnesses his father’s lament of a life of love and loss. His father recognizes that he held words better in his head than being able to speak them, but finds the courage to pour out the story of his life as they travel. At one point the father mourns:
Jimmy used to say we’re a Great Mystery. Everything. Said the things they done, those old-time Indians, was all about learnin’ to live with that mystery. Not solving it, not comin’ to grips with it, not even trying to guess it out. Just bein’ with it. I guess I wish I’da learned the secret to doing that.
To have the courage to feel and pour out our sorrow even when we don’t understand, even when we are disoriented, even when we would rather push it down in search of something new takes trust. The danger is to hold on only to those moments that bless us and avoid these dark ravines. In Longing for Home, Buechner ends with this ineffable mystery that we know the divine presence in our experience of unknowing.
Not solving it, not comin’ to grips with it, not even trying to guess it out. Just bein’ with it – the divine presence who knows and hears my grief and still loves me infinitely.