For many people, the world of grief seems like a void, a large cavern of terror that everyone wants to flee, a place filled with utterly depressing chaos and rampaging emotions. And it is. It’s also filled with people who have unshakable compassion.
There are long periods of silence after the first onslaught of grief calms, and to those who grieve, the experience feels like living in a monastery. So much has been taken away that life feels pared back to stone walls and quiet, except for occasional rantings in the middle of the night. We’re always slightly cold, and the food we eat, while nutritious and warm, is nothing to write home about.
In the first month, well-meaning people show up in the monastery’s guesthouse to visit us, bringing flowers and chocolate, and praising us for how strong we have been to survive such trauma. They listen to our words as if they were golden and we have learned hidden truths. Then they leave, because a glimpse into the dark hours of human existence was enough, and they don’t want to live it. We have no choice.
In this silence, when we’re by ourselves in a bare room with only a bed, a chair, and a desk, we scribble down random thoughts and feelings on scraps of paper that we stuff into our pockets and pull out at odd moments to remind us who we are and where we’ve been. Grief doesn’t seem that exciting, yet in the stillness, life stops swirling and we find an image that brings life into focus. We find a place to sit that holds us in place, and see how grief connects to love, anger to compassion, and despair to hope. In the solitude, we feel the absence of our loved one, but we begin to feel their presence, as well.
As we wander around the monastery, we begin to bump into others who are also grieving. We gather in small groups, and community forms where we do not have to explain ourselves to each other, because everyone understands grief in the Monastery of Shadows. We are living in the sacred space that exists between the living and the dead, between the hard realities of life and the comfort of illusions. A door opens to wisdom that is deeper than what we’ve known, and we step through.
In the long, stone sanctuary, we read passages written down by those who traveled this way before us and find strength and encouragement. We chant ancient psalms of prophets from many traditions who understood struggle, doubt, and courage. We speak the names of our loved ones to the darkness as we light rows of candles so that they do not lose their way. The soft, steady beat of a Celtic drum accompanies the rhythm of our hearts.
As we make our way through the corridors of grief, we move deeper into the Mystery that is unfolding and enfolding us. Simple joys appear throughout the day, like a wren singing at the window, a book left outside our door with a passage marked that moves our soul, a smile from someone we don’t know passing us in the hall.
A community of broken people gathers and passes compassion from heart to heart to heart.
There is spirituality in grieving because we are dealing with matters of heart and faith. It’s following the ancient path of grief’s wisdom that connects us to an Awareness of how life often takes us through fire and helps us rise from the ashes.
Besides spending time in a Trappist monastery to deal with grief, I often went to Yosemite to hike in the mountains and listen to its counsel. My friend Elaine Mansfield felt she dwelt in the Monastery of the Green Man for two years before she came back to life after her husband’s death.
Do not despair. Share yourself with others. Open to those who listen.