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Perilous Dark Path of True Prayer

“We seldom go freely into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster like the death of a friend or spouse or loss of a marriage or job, we usually will not go there. As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent. That is the great language of religion. It teaches us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers. Religious energy is in the dark questions, seldom in the answers. Answers are the way out, but that is not what we are here for. But when we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. Fixing something doesn’t usually transform us. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves. We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer.”

From Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer by Richard Rohr

Nothing in our culture prepares us to deal with darkness and grief.  We are told to cheer up and move on, to shop or drink our way to forgetting the pain we carry.  We are given drugs to alleviate our ills so that we may find ourselves walking through life not feeling much of anything at all.Yet I believe, along with Rohr, that being faithful to our own dark moments is the path of true prayer.  Our lives are filled with grief and loss.  Everything is impermanent as the Buddhists say.  Everything passes away.   

Friday is the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death.  She had a serious chronic illness for many years, but her death was sudden and painful for me.  I sat by her hospital bed those last five days of her life as she lay unconscious and attached to a web of tubes keeping her body alive by fighting the infection that had taken hold of her system. 

The journey that followed was more painful than I had imagined.  I was suddenly an orphan, no parents, no siblings, no children, and there was this confrontation with an existential aloneness that I think we all need to engage at some point in our lives.  What I mourned more than anything was the absence of deeply-rooted rituals to hold me in that space.  I wanted to wrap myself in ancient prayers and traditions to help guide me through my grief and darkness.

I believe that central to our spritual path, we must hold the tension of lament and praise — we must learn the language of descent as Rohr says, as well as ascent. We need to allow ourselves to grow intimate with the contours of each.  To praise without acknowledging our pain is a superficial and shallow response to the realities of the world in which we live.  To lament without offering gratitude or praise is to unbind ourselves from hope. Sometimes we need to spend a season in one of those countries and I am feeling called to tend to sorrow and darkness again.

The whole of the spiritual life is wrapped up in paradoxical tensions, which we must learn to live into rather than figure out.  My mother’s death was in many ways life-changing for me.  I was confronted with questions and sorrow I had not known before.  I was ushered toward a much more vibrant sense of my own mortality and the clarity which can accompany such a realization.  In some ways, the brilliance of autumn’s color reminds me of the way that death can bring the harshest kind of beauty, beauty that forces us to let go of what no longer serves us and embrace that which perhaps terrifies us most but we have always longed to do or be.

In response to my post last week lucy and eileen both posted at their own blog on the question of unresolved grief — whether they carry it, how it is connected to other losses, how to move through it. I think its interesting in our culture that we talk about “resolving” grief, as if loss were something we could figure out the answers to and be done with it.  My experience is that the significant losses of my life continue to echo through my being and shape who I am.  I also believe we all carry grief that has gone unnamed and unmourned. 

Last year’s ritual of remembering unfolded as it needed to happen. I will be listening in the coming hours for how Friday needs to be marked and remembered.

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

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