Two of my friends fell asleep in death last week. One was a monk who was buried at his monastery some distance from here, and the other, John, was a member of our parish. His funeral was today, and I was able to attend it.
I’ve written a lot about funerals and death since my husband died, and am at the point where, though I continue to experience grief, these days the loss and its pain primarily show themselves as elements of the same stuff that every single human experiences, we who live as part of this creation that we also live in. The creation that is waiting:
“For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” -Romans 8
John had been married to his wife for 64 years, since she was 18 years old. He had suffered great pain and disability for much of his life — his particular “stuff,” but while waiting for his full redemption, he was busy doing good works. Maybe his spirit was groaning for its deliverance from corruption, but he expressed his eagerness in generosity and encouraging words and cooking for people.
I was looking for a poem to post this evening, because I had no good story of my own to share. It turns out there was no poem at hand that would serve very well, but here is one from the archives that reminds us to keep on keeping on, through whatever losses we suffer. I’ll see you in the morning!
And there was evening, humid with lightning, when my father
fell to the earth like summer hail, scattered. I gathered
my mother, we threw in a handful of pebbles. And
there was morning, bitterly. There was evening news
bluing walls, violet morning on thunderheads, and the evening
when morning would never again light our bodies in bed.
Morning caravans, headlights, evening. A long caravan of evenings. Then
there was only me, morning. Awake in a room in a building vast with rooms. Everyone
evening. Everyone morning. And God had finished all the work he had been doing—
babies, honeybees, spreadsheets, winter mornings. I said,
I will not stop here, evening. I’ll see you in the morning.
“Let us now look more closely at the lily and the bird from whom we are to learn. The bird keeps silent and waits: it knows, or rather it fully andfirmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time. Therefore the bird waits, but it knows that it is not granted to it to know the hour or the day; therefore it keeps silent. ‘It will surely take place at the appointed time,’ the bird says. Oh no, the bird does not say this, but keeps silent. But its silence speaks, and its silence says that it believes it, and because it believes it, it keeps silent and waits.” -Søren Kierkegaard
I worked very hard last week to compose a second post on Kierkegaard’s The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, which I am reading along with Mags. No good fruit seemed to come from my effort, though I wrote many words in a draft and searched for appropriately themed photos. When earlier this week I heard from Simone Weil through her anthologist Laurie Gagne, who was interviewed on Mars Hill Audio, that a writer must often wait patiently for the right word, it made me think more hopefully about the outcome.
I had begun at least two weeks ago, writing about the new bird community just on the other side of my fence, a few feet away from me when I garden. They are tropical birds in several large cages, temporary residents while their owners are between houses, and they are noisily chirping and even screeching from dawn to dusk. That long time ago, as it seems now, I was focused on their being jungle birds, surely not the sort that inspired Kierkegaard’s contemplations. I cleverly speculated that if Kierkegaard had lived in the jungle he wouldn’t have been likely to write the book he did.
But more pertinent to my present situation, only days later, is the fact that they are caged birds. And right now, many of us the world over feel like caged birds, in our efforts to slow the spread of a quickly spreading virus. Some are less restricted than others because they are in a type of helping role, but they also are at more risk. I, who am healthy and feeling in some ways younger than ever, have been grouped with The Elderly; I am trying to submit meekly, in my mind as well as my body, to my classification and assigned task: to stay home. In this regard, what Kierkegaard writes about seeking God’s kingdom first is something to take to heart:
“But then, in a certain sense is there in fact nothing I shall do? Yes, quite true, in a certain sense there is nothing. You shall in the deepest sense make yourself nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent. In this silence is the beginning, which is first to seek God’s kingdom.”
He does talk about how humans often enter into this silence when they are praying: “…as he became more and more fervent in prayer, he had less and less to say, and finally he became entirely silent…. indeed, he became what is, if possible, even more the opposite of talking than silence: he became a listener.”
Currently, the whole world is waiting. The necessity of waiting is a gift given to us, an opportunity, but if I only wait on the decisions of authorities and on the latest statistics, my waiting is of little value.
“This is also how it is with the lily, it keeps silence and waits. It does not ask impatiently, ‘When is the spring coming?’ [see Pippin’s daffodils at right] because it knows that it will come at the appointed time; it knows that it would not benefit in any way whatever if it were permitted to determine the seasons of the year. It does not say, ‘When will we get rain?’ or ‘When will we havesunshine?’ or ‘Now we have had too much rain,’ or ‘Now it is too hot.’ …. Then the moment comes, and when the moment comes, the silent lily understands that now is the moment, and makes use of it.”
Obviously I myself know little of this subject experientially, but Søren Kierkegaard and the birds and flowers and all of nature have a lot to share, which I love to pass on! Glory to God, that He somehow arranged for me to find this particular book, chosen for its brevity. Ha! Every paragraph seems to have a world of meaning that one could meditate on for a year. The author must have known how to wait for the right word, as Simone Weil talks about.
Suffering. Are we not all suffering right now? Suffering at the most superficial level by our own movements being curtailed, or because we can’t find our favorite food in the stores, all the way to those who are suffering in a holy and productive way, deeply in their souls, expressing coinherence with the healthcare workers of Italy or with the helplessly panic-stricken of any place. When I think of all the monastics and even my priest, who are accustomed to self-containment and waiting on God, who are praying for all the rest of us who pray little, I feel both grateful and ashamed. When I pray with them at all, via their live-streamed services, it strengthens my ability to wait.
Charles Williams coined that word coinherence that I used above, but I don’t think he invented the truth that each of us is mysteriously and mystically united to the other. Simone Weil knew about this, too, and not in a theoretical way, but in the compassion and solidarity that emanated from her heart. When she was only five, she heard that soldiers (in the first World War) had no ration of sugar, so she refused to eat sugar. And much later, when she was at the Sorbonne, we learn more from fellow student Simone de Beauvoir’s writings. When Weil heard about a famine in China, she burst into tears; de Beauvoir envied her for having a “heart that could beat across the world.”
Christ suffered on the Cross in taking on Himself all the death and suffering of mankind, and He calls us to do it for each other, to be little Christs, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a mystery to me, for sure, but I hope that praying with my fellow creatures everywhere will help me to acquire more of this grace.
Regarding our own personal pain and death, Kierkegaard says that when we are silent, it makes our suffering less. This runs counter to modern culture in which we all want to talk in an effort to relieve suffering.
“The bird keeps silent and suffers. However much heartache it has, it keeps silent. Even the melancholic mourning dove of the desert or of solitude keeps silent. It sighs three times and then keeps silent, sighs again three times, but is essentially silent. For what it is it does not say; it does not complain; it accuses no one; it sighs only to fall silent again.Indeed, it is as if the silence would cause it to burst; therefore it must sigh in order to keep silent.”
And by that silence under suffering, Kierkegaard lists several ways suffering is eased; the bird – and potentially we humans! – are freed (I put these points into list form):
“1) From what makes the suffering more burdensome: from the misunderstood sympathy of others; 2) From what makes the suffering last longer: from all the talk of suffering; 3) From what makes the suffering into something worse than suffering: from the sin of impatience and sadness.”
Oh my, I’m afraid I have tempted you to the sin of impatience by my long post, so I am going to stop for now, though I still haven’t come to the end of my meditations on Kierkegaard’s First Discourse. Let me say, in closing, that I am praying with and for people everywhere who are distressed, joining my sighings with yours. I pray that our afflictions may be turned into the sighings of the mourning dove, who after all may be understandably melancholic about the true and sorry state of mankind. Her heartache and sighings become silence, and that is her prayer.
Long ago in Fantasyland, I thought my remodeling project might be done before Lent 2019. And again this year I thought so, but I had less hope than last year. 🙂
I hate to take the time to tell you properly why it’s not done, and how it makes me feel. But I will say that at worst, I feel like a homeless woman who for a year has been camping in an increasingly disorganized storage unit, who must still be presentable at 7:30 every morning to welcome visitors who are working on the place, very close to my bed and bathroom.
But I do have the loveliest bed, plenty of food to eat, and I have a bathroom. My wonderful house has windows through which sun often shines. I have hope of my affliction coming to an end. Millions of people in the world would love to experience my problem. Besides, God knows what I need, doesn’t He? He does. The last fifteen months have not gone the way I expected, but I can’t help but see, even with my bad spiritual eyesight, much good coming out of “everything,” and I’m not talking about my closet makeover.
The providence of God was crystal clear this week, when it’s the first week of Lent, and precisely for the first three days of this special week my project stalled; it wasn’t the first occasion when I could appreciate the timeliness of delay. Unlike most truly homeless people I have a car and could drive to church! I love to attend Matins and other services that are at 8:00 a.m. during Lent, and it’s not difficult during this season of my life when I can’t sleep past 5 or 6. And as often happens, when we have said the last “Amen,” I’m not eager to leave.
Today I lingered to straighten some of the new purple cloths on the icon stands. On Sunday a dozen of them had been quickly exchanged with the previous cloths of Pre-Lenten color — was it gold? — right in the middle of Forgiveness Vespers, and a few were a little wonky. Then I went out and wandered in the church garden with my camera. I had already taken a couple of pictures on arrival, when the sun was barely up.
I went into the kitchen where Herman and Maria were just unloading their shopping bags of vegetables and clams and yummy things with which to make soup for tonight. We will have the first Presanctified Liturgy of Lent, and on Wednesday evenings we eat together afterward, a simple soup-salad-bread meal together, which people take turns cooking. I’m planning to prepare one of these midweek soups in April.
Before I could leave the parking lot I got a phone call from the painting contractor saying that they will finish this week, tomorrow and Friday. I had been prepared to wait much longer than that, but this seems perfect. One never knows what a day will bring — that is one way of describing the uncertainty, lack of routine, and waiting that has often been crazy-making in this last year.
But If I don’t have to wait here at the house, and I am physically able to take walks or go to church while I’m waiting, it’s not hard to be content. A thousand flowers decided that March 1st was a good day to bloom; there’s no denying that spring has sprung!