Like most middle class Americans my age, I have invested most of my life in building. School, marriage, family, career, home. It all went pretty well for awhile. I was a reasonably generous person ~ nothing outrageous, no Mother-Theresa like complexes for me ~ but certainly I gave of my energy and my time and my money and my gifts to my family, my church, and my community. And why not? I had plenty to give; it hardly hurt me to spread a little of it around. Oh, every once in awhile I would find that I had over-committed myself in one realm or another and I'd have to invest some effort into stepping back, but that was about as difficult as it got. We are not talking Ms. Self~Sacrifice here. Except for a couple of times, when disaster hit and left our family confused and hurting ~ but we were capable of determined re-building efforts, and we were always surrounded by people who helped us. So re-build we did.
This is different. This is so different.
Everything has to go.
OK, not everything. Not much of anything exterior, really. The house is still (barely, per usual) standing , the Quiet Husband is still employed, I am still in school. The Gregarious Son and The Lovely Daughter are employed and moving forward, and working to heal a little. We are all trying to heal a little.
But the interior everything ~ it has to go. I have found virtually nothing in a traditional life of Christian faith and practice, at least as I once knew it ~ and I knew it pretty well ~ to sustain me. I remember that a year or so ago, a fellow blogger wrote frequently of feeling shielded under God's wing. No wing for me. One of my professors, when I visited him last spring to seek some academic advice, apparently felt obligated to offer some of what must have seemed to him to have been kindly words of pastoral assurance. It was all I could do to escape his office without throwing up. I have had a number of conversations with others who have experienced similar depths of trauma in recent years ~ and very few have found in church a place of respite or solace.
I have found nothing in my own efforts. I have been busily erecting walls of self-defense against the endless waves of sadness and anger but there is, in fact, no technology available for building walls thick enough to withstand them. I know that, of course. The primary emphasis of the program which I attended a few weeks ago on death and dying was on the need to go deep into and all the way through sorrow in order to make any sense at all of it and to absorb it into the rest of your life. That was not news. But the reality is that the dailiness of life requires a good deal of wall-building. The balance ~ between the barriers you need to secure in place to walk through the grocery or to withstand a basic class discussion on baptism (oh, right, actually I didn't make it through that one . . .) and the openness and honesty needed in order to confront and accommodate one's real life of struggle and sorrow ~ the balance is a tenuous one to maintain. It's no wonder that bereaved people tend to isolate themselves. I'm certainly much more content when I do.
I like that word, accommodate, at least for now. I've read several comments by parents of children who have died by suicide to the effect that acceptance of our loss will never be a possibility, but that accommodation is a realistic hope. I looked it up in the thesaurus and, while some of the synonyms make sense in this context and some do not, the one that resonates with me is attune. We do have to make room for and host this terrible reality, whether we want to or not, but it is perhaps an additional goal to attune ourselves to the nuances of loss and pain in this world, beyond ourselves.
To dismantle and to re-attune who we are, how we hear, what we see, how we know and how we understand. It seems to me an optimistic approach, given that our lives have been pretty well smashed into little bits of broken debris.
(And here's something interesting, for the academically inclined: For that mammoth paper I've finished on Psalm 88, I did a little research on the word mishbarim (breakers), because of the line in verse 8, "Every breaker of yours knocks me down." It seems that the word mishbarim is used in ancient Semitic writings in two fundamental ways: to mean either "waves" in the context of the sea, or "pangs," as in birth pangs (which of course, come in waves). In either case, it refers to powers that shatter or break. In one text in the Dead Sea Scrolls (no no no, of course I haven't read the DSS ~ but I can read about them), the images of birth pangs and the waves of a storm at sea are combined, and the mythologies of other Mediterranean cultures are filled with references to waters, waves, and floods of chaos.)
I am quite taken with that information; that for thousands of years people of a multitude of cultures have melded wave imagery for sorrow and brokenness with wave imagery for birth, and have woven both strands into their sacred texts.
Many (many!) years ago, before my children were born, I read some words of wisdom in some magazine article or other. In response to someone's Yuppie-oriented reluctance to have children for fear that they would change her life, the writer suggested that no one should have children until and unless she wanted to change her life ~ that that is the point, to want to change your life by bringing the abundance of love into it in a form that will change it in every possible dimension. To welcome mishbarim, both literally and figuratively.
Well. One does not want or welcome the mishbarim of the death of a beloved child. But here they are. Breakers and birth pangs, the complete dismantling of the old outlook and understanding.
Can it be reshaped, perhaps tentatively and gingerly, with something fragile and frail? That's what I'm going to imagine this Advent. I'm going to spend some time over in my Advent blog, and I'm going to take at least part of it to explore the Advent of the Heart words of Alfred Delp, S.J. Alfred Delp was a Jesuit caught up in the Holocaust. He shares a great deal in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose work we read a bit of in school last quarter; both were engaged in resistance work against the Nazis, both were imprisoned, both were executed shortly before the end of the war. (Interestingly, according to the introduction to this particular book, during his imprisonment Father Delp received assistance and care from a Lutheran pastor, and is probably quoting Martin Luther at one point. It would appeal greatly to my ecumenical leanings to know that Deitrich Bonhoeffer received care from a Cathoic priest as well. I have certainly heard him quoted in Catholic sermons. One never knows.)
At any rate, Advent of the Heart has popped up on my computer screen via various sources over the past couple of weeks, so I am taking that to mean something. There was nothing fragile or frail about Alfred Delp or his faith as he confronted evil and chaos during Advent. Nothing about Bonheoeffer or his, either. Mishbarim in both of its meanings, and neither of them ever forgot it, whereas I am much more inclined to let myself be shattered rather than reborn.
May this Advent be for the latter, even if in only the smallest of ways. For the tiniest flicker of candlelight in the midst of all this darkness.
Cross-posting at Desert Year.