Remembering sorrow in Spring.
The Christian observance of the days leading up to Easter are not the most popular on the religious calendar. There are not many oratorios or cantatas dedicated to Lent. There is some grand music associated with holy week, such as Bach's St. John's Passion. Almut and I attended a moving performance of this a few weeks ago. These musical works leave one with a profound sadness, and sadness is not a popular emotion in America. We prefer to skip right to the "Jesus is risen" bits, thank you very much, without all the suffering and scourging and sorrow.
We should remember that many religious calendars have times for fasting and penance. These times of sorrow are part of the human experience, and all traditions find ways to deal with them, rather than to ignore them. The Benedictine spirituality that I practice has the themes of sorrow and joy woven into daily life by the incorporation of the psalms into the cycle of prayer. We prefer to remember the psalms of praise. joy, and the beauty of nature. But they are filled also with sorrow, sickness, loneliness, and death.
At our most recent cloister seminar, my assignment was to talk about one way that Benedictine spirituality provides a container for our sorrow: it encourages us to "keep death daily before one's eyes." It sounds at first like a macabre idea, but if one sees it as a spiritual practice, then one can make a little headway.
To help us, I first told a story of visiting a monastery that was affixed to a cliff wall in the mountains of Greece. In taking my own wandering tour of the monastery, I passed through the cells of a few monks, and came suddenly upon one long dark room that incorporated a part of the cliff wall. It was filled with neatly stacked bones and skulls, with some of the skulls laid in a row upon an altar. Here was a monastery that took the practice of "keeping death daily before one's eyes" seriously. To sleep just a few doors down from the room where the bones of your fellow monks lay, and where your bones will one day lie, would indeed put one's life into perspective. It is even more graphic than living next to the family cemetery.
We then talked about the widely circulated phrase "be here now" that was made popular by Ram Dass in a book of the same title. Keeping your own death before your eyes does help to concentrate the mind on the present, to help one to "be here now." To see the present world rather than worrying about the past or future. We then spoke for a bit about seeing the beauty in the world in the present.
My partner Almut, who is always ready to ask the difficult question, then asked "What about grief?" We all paused and thought, and this odd reply came to me: "Americans seem usually to translate be here now into be happy now." We want our spirituality firmly focussed on happiness, thank you. And this is why keeping death before our eyes seems so weird. But death, and grief, and sadness, and pain, are all here now, in and around us. So if we really are here now, we must acknowledge them, sit with them, be here now with them.
This is, then, part of the practice of Lent and of Holy Week: to keep death daily before our eyes. To remember grief and sadness and sorrow as one part of our story. If we sit with our sorrow, and hold it close, we can then realize that the sadness or the grief we have is not ALL of us. We can be separate from it, and it does not have to overwhelm us, paralyze us, or lead us into despair. We can honor the sadness, but not let it overcome us.
So do not rush ahead to Easter and the resurrection this week. Stay with the story of loneliness, betrayal, pain. It is part of your story too, and you can see it in others, and honor it in yourself. This too is spiritual practice. Easter will come, but be here now, in these difficult parts of holy week. Be here now.
Think of a thing that has recently made you sad, and welcome that sadness into your embrace. Be kind to it, give it a place to rest, offer it some comfort. Then place it down for a moment, recognize that it is not all of you, and welcome some other thing that is right in front of you, something you see or hear. Be grateful for both.
PS: While thinking about this blog, I ran across this page in the New York Times of a hospice volunteer who sees her job as being with the dying. Do read it.