Sunday, November 10, 2013

Stumbling in the Dark

An email from a friend spoke of the death by suicide of a deeply committed young woman at a Christian camp connected to her own. Our own much loved friend and mentor, Beth, died at about the same age, in similar circumstances. In the past few years we've had time to share about the ways our questions and grief were not fully acknowledged, and the burden of processing that loss on our own.

Santa Ana muerta con quatro figures,
Manuel Rodriguez Lozano, Mexico, 1933
My friend’s email invited involvement in an attempt to share our own journey with those confronted with this more recent death: What would we say to our twenty-something selves? How did we deal with the doubt and the sorrow? What have we learned since, and how has God been faithful?

Just minutes before opening that email, I had come across an interesting Bible Gateway blog post referencing the suicide of Pastor Rick Warren’s son, and the call for churches to acknowledge and respond to depression and mental illness.  

This is no mere academic interest for me: depression runs deep in my family of origin, and I have loved ones who wrestle, almost daily, with the desire to see the pain of this life come to a sudden end.

I don’t go willingly into that dark place, yet, as the evening closes in earlier, and the holidays approach, I pause to wonder: what would I say to my twenty-something self, the day I heard Beth had chosen to leave us?

Or to my seventeen-year-old self, sitting on the edge of Lake Gleneida, just up the road from the cramped apartment I shared with my grandmother, picturing the deep, dark comfort of black water closing in?

Or my early-thirty-something self, moving through each day in a suffocating cloud, hardly able to breathe beneath the weight of sadness?

In my early forties I wrote a song I still sing to myself occasionally: 
Lord, I have no vision left,
I am bereft
Of hope or joy.
My steps are slow
I do not know
Where I should go
Oh Lord
Carry me through the day.
Looking back I’m struck at the utter loneliness of those dark times, even when loved ones surrounded me.
Why didn’t I tell someone?

I remember as a teen singing songs that reflected my internal sadness and being told, emphatically: “Christians don’t sing in a minor key.”  

Hardly encouragement to share my own inner sorrow, the dark night of my own ongoing struggles.

As Christians, we like to think the answers are available.

God is love.

His plan is good.

Prayer changes things.

Yet, true as I believe those statements are, the world is rarely as simple, or as flat. As humans we are multi-layered beings, carriers of ancient wrong and forgotten blessing, recipients of both gentle grace and casual, thoughtless judgment. Our souls are scarred by harsh words spoken in anger, by misguided instruction that skews our understanding of God’s mercy, by a complex calculus of waste and wonder, by voices that echo, sometimes far too loudly, naming us worthless, unloved, hopeless.

We are a mysterious stew of reason, emotion, spirit, synapses, ganglia. Recent research shows that mistreated children carry evidence in the brain itself, in physical, observable changes in the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, changes that give rise to anxiety, panic, depression, hallucination.

As God’s people, we are not released from the pain of the world, or of our own history, but called to walk within it, to grow in compassion and wisdom, to carry each other’s burdens, to long for God’s healing and shalom to be revealed.

Even when that healing seems very far off.

Even when shalom seems nowhere to be found.

What I would say to my twenty-something self is that God’s mercy is greater than all our misery.

I was stunned to find, just recently, that some friends grieving Beth’s death years ago believed that suicide was the unforgiveable sin. Who could teach such a thing?

Apparently Augustine, alarmed at the ease with which some fellow Christians embraced unnecessary martyrdom, and in opposition to the Stoic philosophy of self-determination. 

A millennium later, Aquinas affirmed Augustine’s conclusion, that suicide is the sin of which one cannot repent.

That understanding shaped theology. Until 1983, the Catholic Church denied victims of suicide funeral rites within the church, or burial in church cemeteries.

As more has been learned about depression, mental illness, and the inner workings of the human brain, church doctrine and public opinion have shifted. The Catholic catechism continues to affirm the value of life, but acknowledges:
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. 
Figura Afligida, Eduardo Kingman,
 Ecuador, 1963
Honestly, though, from what I know of suicide, repentance is not the issue. Repentance – as in turning away, grieving the status quo, longing for wholeness, crying out for forgiveness – repentance saturates the soul contemplating suicide. Surely God can understand the cry of a soul in so much pain.

To my grieving, struggling, younger self, I would say: there is much I don’t understand.

I don’t understand why we sometimes pray for light, and continue on in darkness.

I don’t understand why some people seem to breeze lightly through life, while others stumble under insurmountable loads.

I don’t understand the silence that sometimes surrounds us, when we call out for help, and feel our cries aren’t answered.

I do know we aren’t the first to wonder.

The pages of my Bible are worn at Psalm 102: 
Hear my prayer, Lord; 
let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me 
when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me; 
when I call, answer me quickly.
For my days vanish like smoke; 
my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
 I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud 
and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; 
I have become like a bird alone on a roof. . . .
My days are like the evening shadow;
 I wither away like grass.
There are things I don’t know.

But there are also things I know.

I know that the more mercy I extend to others, the more mercy I receive.

I know that investing in the health and care of others in pain has brought me more joy than I once thought possible.

I know that life is a journey, and the road to great happiness often leads through great sorrow.

Last Sunday, I started the week in church, holding my sleeping baby grandson, his nine-year old brother leaning on my arm, my husband beside me. My daughter and son-in-law (mother and father to the two little boys) were leading the congregation in worship, and my granddaughter, the little boys’ sister, was dancing somewhere near the front of the church between her other very loving grandparents. We closed with one of my favorite songs:
“Blessed Be Your name, when I'm found in the desert place,
Though I walk through the wilderness, Blessed Be Your name.”
I’ve sung that song with tears running down my face, in turbulent distress, and in surprising joy.
“Blessed be your name, on the road marked with suffering,
Though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name.”
Since Sunday, we’ve learned of the very sudden death of a long-time friend and colleague, attended his moving, faith-filled funeral in upstate New York, five hours away, visited a loved one in a psychiatric hospital, traveled some familiar roads, revisited old sorrows.

I know this too:
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
  even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
  even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you. 
Le Bon Pasteur  (The Good Shepherd)
 James Tissot, France, ca1890
When I picture my friend Beth, or Rose, or the others I could list who have lost their footing to despair, I picture the Good Shepherd – more loving than me, more forgiving than me, more tireless than me – calling them gently, gathering them in his arms, singing his song of mercy and love, carrying them toward light.

I know – without doubt – he came to give them life abundant.

Life beyond this place of sorrow.

Life brighter than I can imagine.

Life no one can take away. 

This post is part of the November Synchroblog: Faith Stories. Here are the links foro other faith story posts: