Saturday, January 30, 2010

Stages of Grief

I am very, very tired, after having gone to the funeral home with my friend and sat in the same little room that my husband and I sat in seventeen months ago . . .

I came home and said to The Lovely Daughter that I am pretty much not believing it these days. I just think he will come home.

"Total denial," she said. You know, those stages of grief don't happen in sequence."

"I know that," I said. "Denial seems like a high-functioning place though. I spend most of my time there. I'm not angry too often anymore, and I can tell when I'm in acceptance, because then I just cry, because I get it."

She nodded.

"I've pretty much given up on bargaining. It didn't seem to work," I said.

"Mom, that is SUCH a denial statement," she responded.

"You have to know you're in denial when you talk about bargaining not working as if it might have. Only a person in total denial could think that there is anything plausible about bargaining."

I love my daughter so much. A couple of nights ago we were watching something ~ I have no idea what ~ on tv and one of the characters vocalized a long litany of recent disasters in her life.

"Do you remember what it was like when a statement like that was just dialogue on a tv show?" she asked.

Time Management

Thanks to everyone who left kind words the past few days. You would know how unwarranted they are if you had been with me on Thursday night when a friend and I decided to go and pray with the Benedictine monks. I am too embarrassed to relate the story; let's just say that sometimes I have no business going out in public. Especially when "in public" means "in silence."

My friend said afterward, "You have to remember that the very last thing that Brother M. said as we left was, "I hope you'll come back.' "

Truthfully, I'm not sure how far one can push Benedictine hospitality.

My schedule has been very tight the past several weeks. It was tight before The Quiet Husband ended up in the hospital over New Year's, before his father went into a dramatic decline and died, before I was asked to accompany someone to a funeral home for an initial visit today, before I was asked to preach next Sunday. I am trying to do all the work I did not do during the final push toward ords and suddenly there are several other things on my plate that weren't there a few days ago.

All of which is to say I think I am coming to terms with something about ministry and time management. There will always be things on my plate that weren't there a minute ago. "Things" migrate fast. I realize that I have to plan my days with huge chunks of time open for the unanticipated. If they don't fill up, then I have space for extra reading and study and housework and whatever, but if they do -- well, I knew that was going to happen.

This kind of non-schedule was a feature of my life when I practiced family law, but there were definitive seasons of inconvenience. Right before school starts and Christmas vacation: divorced and divorcing parents have a tendency to create the most impossible situations for their families and their attorneys. Children have a way of not being delivered to the destinations to which pieces of paper known as court orders say they will be delivered, and total havoc ensues.

It seems that in ministry this goes on 24/7. I'm getting it.

I think this is why I need the quiet of the monastery. It's also why I behave badly ~ inadvertently, of course, but badly nevertheless ~ when I get there.

Maybe I need to go back to the practice of law, where loud noises and expletives are, um, expected.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Never Ending

I wrote this last Saturday:

So . . . yesterday we took two three-hour exams and today we took one more. I wish I had received Mompriest's comment last night because suddenly, at 9:00 pm, I lost any capacity for sleep, and began to churn through all my perceived errors. Today I've been able to put all that to rest, probably because . . .

the Hebrew passage, delivered to us at noon,, is the story of Elijah bringing the widow's son back to life.

I sank into a fairly profound depression for several hours as I contemplated wrestling with that one for five days. (Have you ever tried to count how many stories there are in the Bible of dead sons coming back to life? More than just the main one.) I thought about switching to Greek (it's up to us), but all things conspired against that brilliant idea: memory (none), desire (none), and reality: the New Testament passage in question is one of proclamation and, let's face it, I am way more attuned to narrative.

And when that thought occurred to me, the next one was: does that say something about a call to chaplaincy as opposed to a church, or what? Perhaps I will get something completely unexpected out of this last exam, in the form of clues for next year.

(And I'd love to hear from the other RevGals on this one. My sermons have been criticized this year for being exploratory rather than insistent. The assessment is accurate, but the question remains: Is there a place for exploratory, musing, contemplative preaching in the church? The events of the last seventeen months have made emphatic proclamation an impossibility for me. And, on the positive side, have made the journey through people's stories all the more compelling.)

I think I have to go to sleep soon; I'm exhausted. I hope I can pull this off and put testing behind me FOREVER.


Now it's six days later and I'm finally back home. Writing the exam was fine; I am getting much more adept at putting my personal stuff aside when I have to accomplish an academic task.

I spent some time on the phone this morning with a friend who has an urgent need to know about coroners, funeral homes, cremations, and ashes. I remembered how much it had helped me fifteen months ago to talk to friends who had that kind of knowledge and were willing to share it openly and candidly.

I have to say, the conversation this morning affected me a good deal more than writing the paper had.

Of course, the widow in the Elijah story turned out not to need the information that I now have.

(Louis Hersent Painting)

Monday, January 25, 2010


Today, in the midst of a sky-high pile of academic demands, I paused to remove my name from a parents-of-suicides email list.

I've been on the list for several months and, even though I receive the mailings in digest form, there are 10-20 of them a day. Sometimes many more.

I haven't read them often, but I've read them enough to learn a lot and realize a little beyond myself how much pain this kind of loss produces.

Discoveries of bodies. Autopsy reports. Clueless and insensitive family, friends, and co-workers. Depression and despair. Financial and legal disasters. Physical pain. PTSD. YEARS of immobilizing anguish.

I have been more fortunate than most.

Such an odd thing to say. Most of that inventory I know from personal experience. I came to a baffled and angry halt for several hours on Saturday, and woke up today in a state of almost complete despair. But before, in between, and after, I had productive periods and good conversations with friends ~ all of which I consider major triumphs.

I have realized over the past few months that I have had a huge thing in my favor. Despite my waiting and expecting it to happen, not a single person has confirmed my worst fears to my face by saying, "You can't do this. You couldn't even keep your child alive; for sure, you cannot be a minister. In fact, you can't be anything at all, ever."

No one has said it. (Of course, maybe they think it all the time. But it seems not.)

I have become grateful for some of the silence that has surrounded me; it seems to underlie an assumption on the part of others that I can, in fact, move forward in my life.

And so: I'm off the list.

The fact that I am the mother of three beautiful children and one of them is lost to me remains the predominant factor in my daily existence. I struggle all day long to accomodate it, and, as far as I can tell, I dream about it all night long as well

But I can balance other things at the same time now, and that's what I want to do.
(Painting: Anthony Pegg, Woman at the Window)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Break Time

I posted a bit about the Hebrew exam which we got yesterday and have to turn in on Thursday, and then had second thoughts, so I'll repost later this week. I was afraid that some kind of inadvertent discussion would ensue, and the last thing I need is to be the first person ever to have her exam discounted due to blogging.

It was kind of a nice day. I've stayed at seminary for the week-end, so I went to a GORGEOUS church this morning, a church at which one of our professors is the senior pastor. In the interests of even more discretion, I am not going to comment on the discussion some of us had afterward and my own observations contrasting this church with my home and field ed churches. Let's just say that between my classes and my experiences, I'm having a fascinating and enlightening year with respect to all the different ways worship might be.

It's been mostly dark and rainy so I've mostly stayed in and worked. (I did go for a soaking walk.) A fireplace would have made for a very nice afternoon.

Now I'm just exhausted. I plan to respond by playing around for a few minutes with one of those counters that tells where your blog visitors are from. So ~ if you're headed for someplace exotic, stop by for a visit!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ords Black-Out

I expect to be put of blogging commission for a few days ~ exams in theology and in worship and sacraments are on Friday, polity on Saturday ~ and then at noon on Saturday we get the passage and questions for the Hebrew exam, which is due the next Thursday. (Yes, I'm putting all my eggs in the Hebrew basket; my aversion to Greek is too strong and, while we know the Biblical books from which the passages will come, I haven't had any time for contemplating two alternate possibilities.)

Mostly I am incredibly busy, and behind on every front. I have no idea whether I will pass any of the exams in this round. But every once in awhile I pause and think,

"I am about to take the exams for ORDINATION AS A MINISTER OF WORD AND SACRAMENT."

I'm not exactly sure how that can be the situation, but it is certainly a daunting and breathtaking and monumentally humbling (an oxymoron, I suppose) one in which to find myself.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bad Bad Sermon Moments

Heard in the past week . . . (and paraphrased, due to the memory thing):

"I just don't understand why people absent themselves from church when they are in terrible pain ~ after all, community is where we need to be!"

and . . .

"If you think that God is absent from those who suffer (immediate context: Haiti), then you shouldn't be here!"

One of the writers on Fierce Good-bye says that, "I know from 4 years experience . . . that about half of all [suicide] survivors will either change churches, or stop going to church altogether."

Shall we guess why?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

That Little Question: Theodicy

As I prepare for my ordination exams, I keep tripping over the issues of suffering and evil. You'd think that I, of all people, would have a handle on them, but of course most of the explanations proffered in our couple of thousand of years Christian history are of little use in the face of reality, whether that reality be a family tragedy or something of the magnitude of Haiti.

In my roamings this morning, I found this, by Episcopal priest Matt Gunter. It's well worth a read. And if you're short of time, here's my favorite line:

"French poet, Paul Caudel, wrote, 'Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it away. He came to fill it with His presence.' ”

God knows my brain is so full of the bizarre conglomeration of material needed for the exams (Can you explain divine-and-human-in one? Whether to baptize a stillborn baby? How your church might purchase the vacant lot next door? The tension among ruler and prophet in I Kings? Anything at all?) that it has begun to leak. But I am going to file that line away for use forever.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Five

It's been months since I've played a Friday Five, but hey: why not today?

Jan writes:

In EFM this week, our question was, "If you were a color, what would you be?" So that's where this Friday Five comes from, at least its jumping off place.

1. If you were a color, what would you be?

Crayola Blue Green, the color of oceans and northern forests.

2. If you were a flower (or plant), what would you be?

A cactus: well-defended and prickly on the outside, hopeful for life on the inside.

3. If you were an animal, what kind would you be?

A cheetah: languid, elegant, and fast. Or maybe a porcupine: see number 2.

4. If you were a shoe, what type would you be?

A pair of Tevas: think beach and hiking trail.

5. If you were a typeface, which font would you be?

Mistral. It just looks like me.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Not Just About Me

In Haiti, I figure, there are lots of people who need to talk about loss.

Lots of grieving people.

I can't go there to listen, but I wish I could.

This is the first time I've felt that way in sixteen-plus months.

That's something, I think.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

And While We're On The Subject of the Challenges of Loss . . ..

I know that I have a number of good friends and readers who roll their eyes in disbelief, skepticism, irritation, and incredulity whenever the faith stuff comes up ~ and most especially in the context of things like my son's death, and death and loss in general. (Not that there is ever an "in general." It's always so painfully personal.)

If you've read any of Desert Year, then you know that I don't have a sentimental or squishy approach to faith, that I was besieged by a profound sense of God's abandonment in the year-plus after Josh's death, and that I am much more comfortable with questions than with answers. I am going to write more about all of that soon, but not now! ~ as I am confronted by the need to stop all unnecessary activity for two weeks in an effort to salvage my ordination exams, to which ironically, confident answers are the expected response.

I don't, however, want to depart for my husband's family and father's funeral and then The Library, without linking to one of the best things I've read in a long time about faith and consolation. I may have written that in the days after my son's death, I overheard my father say "At least she has her faith to comfort her," and that I shook my head as I kept walking down the hall, thinking that he didn't have the foggiest notion of the challenge of the Christian faith. Much of Desert Year was an exploration of that challenge, although I was far too immersed in pain to see or write a way out.

Ryan Duns, S.J. is an exceptionally thoughtful and articulate young man. I might debate his conclusion a bit, and suggest that there are times when consolation is not about confidence, which has a way of evaporating, but about hope when you can see nothing ~ and about not even your own hope, but that of others, who remain present to you and open to God and hopeful for life again, all when you have moved into some other dimension in which none of those things seem possible. Nevertheless, the post is a wonderful expression of an aspect of Christian faith seldom acknowledged. (I sometimes think that Ryan is channeling my first Jesuit spiritual director, something I recognize because I do it myself on occasion.)

At any rate, enjoy the music in the previous two posts ~ but don't think that I'm under the impression that faith is an easy road, especially when we live on life's most brutal edges.

I may be back sooner than later so that I can bemoan the need to write yet another exegtical paper in Hebrew ~ or I may wait till it's all over.

Music This Week

from last Friday's funeral for the beloved fifteen -year-old girl:


and from tomorrow's funeral for her beloved grandfather, to be sung by The Lovely Daughter:

and my father-in-law's favorite:

Monday, January 11, 2010


Those of you who know me on FB know that my father-in-law died Saturday afternoon.

My husband and I spent most of Friday focused on the funeral mass for the young lady whom he had coached in soccer for five years.

She was a freshman at a Catholic girls' school, and half the sanctuary was filled with its students and alumnae. They all sang their alma mater so sweetly at the beginning of the service and
then began to cry at the end as Stand By Me (the last FB status of the young woman, who had collapsed at school a few days earlier) was piped into the sanctuary. The other half of the huge sanctuary was filled with people who have experienced the seemingly incessant stream of deaths of young people which has plagued their parish for the past three months. My spiritual director was one of the priests presiding, and we had a meeting scheduled for late that afternoon, which was perhaps a good thing for both of us. I don't know about him, but I went straight to bed afterward.

My husband's father has been quite ill, but there has been much optimism for for him during the last couple of weeks. However, on Saturday morning my sister-in-law called to say that things had suddenly gone downhill. We got there a couple of hours before he died, surrounded by most of his family, and spent yesterday on funeral planning. I am home now for a brief day of organizing and cleaning and then back to my in-laws' home for at least a couple of days.

As we talked over the funeral, some dear family friends mentioned how much they had liked some of what we did at Josh's. I don't know how it is for other people, but for us it's as if he died this morning, and so it seems like all of these losses are happening at once.

I know I have moaned mightily about the overuse of Psalm 23 (a complaint echoed, to my surprise, by my mother-in-law yesterday), but in my Catholic ventures this past year I have become very fond of the version above. I seem to like it particularly this morning.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Presbyterian Surprises

I am a Presbyterian pretty much by accident. (Well, if I were REALLY a Presbyterian, I suppose I would put that a bit differently.)

And I am extremely ecumenical in background and approach and practice.

But as I study for my ordination exams ~ in theology, worship and sacraments, and church government (Hebrew is a take-home and requires a completely different approach) ~

I am falling in love with my accidentally-aquired Presbyterian heritage and home.

I have friends here in seminary who just shrug their shoulders and say, "I've never known anything else." But my experience has been quite different and so, for me, Christianity, Protestantism, and the Presbyterian tradition are all conscious and distinct choices among a variety of alternatives.

Who knew that studying for ords would be, ummmmmm, actually exciting ~ and even sort of transformative?


That said, I still will not hesitate to mention the countdown: two weeks from tomorrow they begin, three weeks from this morning I turn in the Hebrew exam, and then, I'm thinking, a motel with a hot tub . . . ?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Sadly Connected

Year before last when she was applying to high schools, one of the girls my husband had coached in soccer for several years wrote an essay about how much he had influenced and helped her as a player, and how sorry she had been to hear that he had lost a son. It was an unusually lovely and sensitive essay for such a young woman.

She died a couple of days ago -- a stunningly beautiful, loving, and talented 15-year-old. I still don't know what happened, but apparently it was very sudden.

I am beginning to think that it is the rare family that is NOT haunted by the death of a child.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Thinkin' 'Bout ....being a minister and a ministeree

A few weeks after our son died, my brother announced that he and his wife were going to find a church. (In their Catholic-Presby-Methodist household down in the ~ uh ~ more conservative and very evangelical ~ part of the state, the progress has been slow.) He was stunned by the outpouring of care that he had seen in our home in those first days, and realized that the two of them were utterly without spiritual community.

He was equally stunned when I mentioned casually last week that I really hadn't heard from my pastors (we have a senior pastor and an associate pastor) in . . . months.

Miscellaneous and unformed thoughts . . .

a blogger (source forgotten) commenting that once he started seminary, his pastor called him every single week for three years . . .

me, wondering out loud to my field ed class: What do you do? Do you keep an ongoing list of names and set aside time to phone or email or write to everyone on the list every week? Or make sure that someone else does? . . .

my brother, telling me that he's just hired a relationship consultant for his investment firm in which 2.5 people try to meet the needs of 180 clients, and wondering how two pastors could possibly meet the needs of 500 parishoners, and me saying that in my world we would call a relationship consultant an associate for pastoral care and yes, we need one . . .

two-thirds of my session and some other folks, too, showing up for my candidacy meeting at Presbytery, an hour from home one summer evening, and both pastors showing up when another member and I graduated from our spiritual direction program in August ~ yes, we do the special and unusual extremely well . . .

the occasional surprising and lovely letter or gift that has appeared over the past year from members of my church . . .

the couple of times I have made remarks intended to leave the door wide open for further conversation but no pastor has stepped through . . .

and mostly, the silence.

I'm pretty much over it. I get it ~ our church has amazing preaching, music, liturgies, educational programming, leadership development, mission involvement, and social justice commitments. It is, truly, a wonderful church, and two of us are planning to guide a weeklong prayer retreat there in Lent, for which we've received great support.

No one institution can do everything.

But my personal experience of loss and its aftermath is a huge factor in my discernment process for next year.

I think I would summarize it as follows: much of the foundation for the spiritual experience of grief was, indeed, laid by the church as worshipping community, as educational institution, as gathering of fellow seekers and hopers and learners and people of God. But an equal part of that foundation and 99% of the care that has followed came from the very individual attention of a couple of people, people not connected with my own church at all.

Interesting that, as I have been mulling this over for weeks, my spiritual director just preached a homily on the significance of one person caring whether someone sinks or rises.

But one person cannot be that one person for an entire congregation.

So what do you do? What do we do?

Eliot's The Journey of the Magi

Long ago, I was an English major. I had already fallen in love with T.S. Eliot in high school, and in college I took a couple of courses in 20th century poetry. I wrote many papers on poetry, ranging from the introductory work we did on Beowulf to the confessional poets so popular in the 1970s. No doubt some of those papers contained sentences referencing Eliot's capacity for the wide sweep of western mythology, his articulation of the universality of the experience of alienation, and his conversion to Christianity (which at the time would have seemed mythological and alienating to me!). These days, I find the symbolism much more accessible and the language an easier slide ~ but, in a life which has become foreign to me, the overall evocation of the difficult journey and the confusing mystery of life and death is much more significant than the details of poetic skill that underlie them.

It's a beautiful, beautiful poem, regardless of the ground from which you approach it.

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The snow was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

(Image: Gentile da Fabiano, The Adoration of the Magi, 1422, Uffizi)

Monday, January 04, 2010


It seems that among the things to which those of us in some considerable pain must resign ourselves are the well-intentioned efforts of (our?)(Job's?) friends to urge us to reconsider our potential for happiness. Last fall, in the wake of one such conversation (full post here), I concluded that:

<<to say that the point of life is "to be happy" renders our existence virtually pointless, while the alternative, "to know God," offers us dignity and significance. If all that is available to me in the face of the death of my child is "to choose happiness" ~ well, that seems to me to represent the epitome of triviality. However, if knowledge of God ~ which would also mean knowledge of love, knowledge of ways to remain present to those I care for, knowledge of my life having some purpose ~ remains a possibility, then there is a point to life. >>

Today, Tim Muldoon, a writer over at Ignatian Spirituality, offers the following:

<Finding Happiness, which is perfect for those of a resolution frame of mind. Written by a Benedictine abbot (of Worth Abbey, in Sussex), the book looks at the development of the philosophy of happiness in the West, from the Greeks into the monastic period of the Church, focusing on the Eight Thoughts (acedia, gluttony, lust, greed, anger, sadness, vanity, and pride) which get in the way of happiness. Remove the eight thoughts, he suggested, following the 4th century monk John Cassian, and you remove what makes you unhappy.

As a historical note, when Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises he was using a tradition that was already long established in monastic history, so what Jamison has to say about happiness is very much in the same vein as what Ignatius was aiming for. The idea is common in the Church Fathers and Mothers, Aquinas and the scholastics, and Ignatius: remove sin so that God’s grace may work in your life. That’s happiness. (Not necessarily pleasure–they all followed Aristotle on this point, that pleasure is passing but happiness is a way of being at work in the world. Pleasure is fine, but it comes and goes.)>>

Perhaps my own (and my friend's) confused thought was merging happiness with pleasure. I am willing to hazard a guess that in talking about "knowledge of God" I was in the vicinity of Jamison's discussion of happiness, and that what perturbed me so much about my friend's insistence on happiness was my perception that she wanted me to find a way to have some fun.

I believe that I can say with some authority that mothers who have lost children to suicide are not thinking much about fun ~ but we are focused intently on meaning of life questions. And on questions such as whether our own lives will ever again be about anything beyond endurance.

And so: I am thinking I'll take a look at this book.

AFTER ordination exams.

(And for all who have followed our miserable vacation saga: we are home and have learned that, indeed, middle-ear mess-ups can produce total life havoc. It will be awhile before The Quiet Husband can return to work, as he can't really walk or drive, but he should be fine eventually. Many thanks for all the prayers and support.)

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Good People Everywhere

The Quiet Husband is home and slept quietly (!) all night.

It is not so terrible to be not the sick one but the one going in and out of the hospital when it's surrounded by palm trees and the nurses' scrubs feature patterns of sunglasses and porpoises. The care was excellent, and laid-back in a good way.

We missed a spectacular New Year's Day in the Keys; every time I drove up and down the highway I could see dozens of kayaks and fishing boats out in the blue-green-purple water under the bright sunshine. This morning it's still beautiful, but quite chilly, and no one else is up yet, so I don't know whether we're going to start the drive home or not. I'm about to head out for my walk.

The really good thing: being surrounded by friends. Friends sending good wishes and prayers via blog and FB and email, friends at home dealing with our snow-covered house, and a friend in Philly praying in front of my favorite painting.

Thanks, everyone.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Really, I Thought That Maybe We Could Try Again

My husband got really, really sick and spent last night in the hospital here in Islamorada. This morning they tell me he is still too dizzy to stand. Last night there was some talk of sending him to Miami, so I have no idea yet where to plan for the rest of us to stay tonight.

The doctor won't be in for a couple of hours and I have a number of calls to make, which is why I'm still at the condo, waiting for a reasonable telephone hour. I am supposed to be packing up and flying home today and preaching on Sunday, none of which is going to happen. Others things are going to happen, but who knows what they will be.

I know; I did say that only a moron would try to predict five minutes ahead.

Shall we move on down to Have a New Year That You Can Stand?