Every Wednesday

Every other Wednesday, I will post a reflection on the entire landscape of grief. This blog isn't just for widowers. It's for everyone who grieves. I want to encourage people to share their stories and compassion with each other, build up a community of support, and help those who have never grieved understand the trauma that death brings.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

100 Miles Beyond Where Jesus Lost His Sandals

Dark Night 3 of 4

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten journey for Christians when they refocus their life on faith. This year it’s also Valentine’s Day when we celebrate our heart’s yearning. For some the two are intimately twined. 

The title of this post is something I heard recently. I don’t know its origin, but it struck me as fitting both the journey of grief and the journey of faith when we have traveled far beyond everything we know and are simply trying to survive. 


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A year after Evelyn died, my friend Steve insisted that I go with him to Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky where Thomas Merton had been a monk. I gave in because I loved Merton’s writings and I had stalled in grief. I thought that I might be grieving wrong because a year had gone by and I still didn’t care about anything. I was drifting.

For a week I walked around the monastery, reflected on the icons, and listened to the monks sing Gregorian chant. I attended the seven services throughout the day, and pulled myself from sleep at 3 a.m. to go to the first one. I watched the silent monks as they worked, dressed in their black and white robes and sandals, and I walked through the woods that Merton walked when he was the monastery’s hermit.

I wasn’t seeking Merton’s dark night of the soul, and as far as I could tell, most of the monks that Merton was cloistered with didn’t desire this, either. They came to the monastery to spend their lives drawing closer to God, but I sensed that most wanted to do this in community, not as hermits.

I did not find any answers that week, but I felt a Presence. I sensed that God was sitting with me in the ruins of my life and helping me bear my grief. I wrote about this in my essay “Tinkering with Grief in the Woods.”

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In many religions, there are mystics who seek union with God. In the early Christian Church, men and women went into the desert to be alone with God. In the Greek Orthodox Church, monks on Mount Athos still seek to disappear into the divinity. Islam has Sufi mystics like Rumi, and Martin Buber wrote of the Jewish desire for union with God in his book I and Thou.

Not all who seek the enlightenment of the dark night make it through. After Mother Teresa gave up her comfortable life to minister to the poor and dying in Calcutta, India, she endured her own darkness. For years, she said, she could not feel God’s presence at all. 

In Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris says that she struggled for years with spiritual melancholy, the time when “we are haunted by betrayal and loneliness, and know the pain of the wee hours, when the dark of night matches the state of our souls.” She could not write, felt spiritually dry, and her husband was struggling with his health. What kept her going was the Psalms.

“Hope may seem a flimsy thing in the face of acedia’s cold assurance that nothing matters and that waiting is unmitigated hell…. Its very persistence in our hearts indicates that it is not a tonic for wishful thinkers but the ground on which realists stand. For thousands of years the psalmist and the prophets have been a source of strength for people facing plague, warfare, massacre, imprisonment, execution, and exile. This is the sort of hope that matters, for it can conquer not just acedia and despair, but death itself.”

At the heart of the Dark Night is love, even if we don’t understand how.

While walking the stone hallways at Gethsemani Monastery, I realized that Yosemite was my monastery, and that was where I would work out my salvation. During my frequent trips there, I hiked alone in the wilderness and continually saw wonders that left me stunned, as when storm clouds moved lower and hid the tops of the mountains in mystery. The mountains are where the ancient Japanese believed the holy ones lived. I listened to the music of the rain falling in the forest, and heard the hush that settles over the land when it snows. I felt connected to the community of animals and birds. It felt like home. 

I do not yearn for a dark night experience, but I do seek to be present to every moment and live with compassion for others. This is enough of a challenge. 
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Links


Dark Night One – Tim Farrington. Shattered Illusions

Dark Night Two – Brené Brown. Weaving the Shadows Together

Dark Night Three – Kathleen Norris. Losing Our Sandals

Dark Night Four – Mirabai Starr. Integrating Our Loss

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