A cruisy, summer sunday afternoon in 21st century Australia, Jed’s savouring an ice cold beer after mowing his lawn, fresh cut grass filling the air, as his teenage daughter backs out the driveway. A thud. Silence. A scream. Glass shatters, beer flows effortlessly over the table, empty. Empty. A stumbling run, an erupting panic. His little boy lies motionless. Time stops. Blood throbbing in his ears. He looks up, his daughter dissolving in merciless horror. Jed’s wife bursts through the front door, and freezes. Phones fumble for triple 0. The universe quietly caves in. Everything ends. A white ambulance, flashing lights, starch white sheets for a crushed prince. Dimensionless energy flees, leaving one tiny, helpless form. Stark white faces for a crushed family, three helpless forms tremble.
This story is repeated, on average, every week in Australia.
A winter night, early 20th century rural Australia, a little girl hacks and barks her way through every struggling breath. Wheezing, her young parents gripped with despair. Then silence. A stiff, wooden priest comforts with cliche “your little girl is in a better place now.”
We believed. We had laid hold of the promises. And this? Don’t. Don’t give me your stories of loss, don’t tell me why. Your whys nail the casket of my heart more tightly shut.
For. Don’t tell me what this was for. If there is a reason, I don’t want to hear it. Reasons tell us what is. You cannot tell us what is not, and all we have is what is not.
Don’t give me the sweet by and by, some unreachable pie in the sky. We don’t live then. Hope is no comfort to those who will wake tomorrow to endless empty.
With. Please, be here. Wordless, but present. Your warm body, your nearness, this is all I want. All I need. It will not change anything, but will comfort in everything.
I inherited a faith that gave me whys and fors, not withs. For every suffering, we were quick with alternative evidence of God’s goodness. The deeper the pain, the louder the promises, believers running headlong from the threat of reality with platitudes of Heavenly perfection.
My maternal grandparents watched their three year old daughter choke to death from whooping cough. The priest told them that God loved their little girl more than they did, so he took her to himself. Why. What a narcissist this god is. My grandparents never set foot in a church again, for the next 60 plus years, save for weddings and funerals. Wise, if the whys that dressed their grief represented the church they had called home.
The Jews have a tradition called Sitting Shiva. When a loved one dies, a close friend or family will sit with the mourner for seven days, saying nothing except in reply, and simply being a safe, available and constant presence. With. Food is provided by the comforter, so the mourner can be, not do. To be is a weight almost too great to bear, but to be is to hold pain so that it might be processed, so that it might, one day, be transformed, so that it might, one day, transform. To do is too easy when it is too hard to be, but to do is to not be with ourselves, which is to not hold pain, which is stored, unprocessed, only to be projected when it is triggered. To be with is to go against this society’s endless distracted addiction to soulless productivity.
In Sitting Shiva, mirrors are covered, distractions are removed, pain is embraced. On the death of the love of his life, W. H. Auden reflected:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Yes, there is a future promise in Revelation 21, when God will “wipe every tear from (our) eyes” – a time when “death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone” (The Message). Yet it’s not even the ‘what’ that matters in this verse, much as we ache and yearn for an end to all suffering. It is not the ‘why’- although this gives assurance of the beneficence of God – or the ‘how’, though we long to peer into such things. It is the ‘with’. For the very words that precede the above promise, John wrote “God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people…” This takes the future hope and plants it firmly in our now, for only presence can make the present a present.
Which takes me to the whole point of this blog. Last night I was reflecting on how disappointing life – as foreground – is. For most of us, there is just enough money, with the constant fear it will run out. As I write this, the weather is oppressively hot, and much of the land is hurtling back into severe drought, threatening livestock, communities and wildlife. The planet is warming, we are told – and we are the reason. Death – and taxes – are the only constant. It is easy to experience life as a series of meaningless problems to solve, and then we die. And we are the lucky ones. 60,000 children will die today of preventable diseases and malnourishment. And tomorrow. And the next day. The foreground – taken on its own – can be alienating, disorienting and overwhelming. Which is why we westerners follow Peggy Lee’s lead “If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”
Yet there is also a background. It is not immediately available to our rational minds. It takes silence, space, often nature, to notice the backdrop is Love. That Emmanuel – with us – is a quiet, accepting, welcoming, non-possessive embrace. The old adage “two men looked out the same prison bars, one saw mud, the other, stars” is more about the background vs the foreground than it is about positive attitude. It asks us, are we grasping (I want out of this prison now!!) or surrendering (I am here, I am willing, I breathe. I will be)? It is from the background that we gradually discover the golden thread being weaved through our foreground. Without this perspective of ‘with’, our orphaned selves will medicate grief with addictions piled upon distractions. But with the adoptive ‘withness’ of life, there is a relaxing, a falling back into. “I have no program for this seeing, but the gate of Heaven is everywhere,” said Merton, and the golden thread becomes most visible when our foregrounds are darkest, the contrasts starkest. For then, all we have is with. All we know is be. And the gold that is so often the pain of absence, of loss, is the nourishment of intimacy, warmth, belonging. As He comes near, we come near. To each other. In safety. To be with.This is the gift of the contemplative stance.