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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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12 Responses

  1. Wow, I am blessed with such beautiful readers.

    Thanks for the poem Pam, it moved me deeply. Tess and yolanda, I appreciate your presence and thoughts. eileen, thank you for sharing a piece of your own journey.

    I will hold all of the comments above close to my heart.

  2. Christine-
    Both you and your mother will be in my prayers on Friday. How wonderful that you were with her for her final five days. The most intimate times of life (aside from the obvious) are to be present at a child’s birth and present for a person’s death.
    I am definitely into moving forward, and am grateful to have realized many truths because of grief. You are absolutely right – especially with the early life losses, they set the stage of my personality in many ways. I have finished my letters for this year and I feel much relief. There are things I have always wanted to communicate and felt ridiculous doing so … or that it would be just TOO sad. All in all, this has been another blessing. It was fulfilling to put it down in black on white. One thing that I have known for some time is that I have had a devotion to The Blessed Mother for most of my life … and that was one of the gifts I received from my grief.

  3. One more comment, that is really a suggestion. I have found it very satisfying to plant something on the day of my mother’s death, in remembrance. Although most people don’t think of this as a time of year for planting, the process of putting a few bulbs in the ground that will gloriously bloom later could have a lot of meaning. You could pick a few that were her favorites or ones that express a message to her.

  4. Richard Rohr used to teach the Enneagram and wrote (in my opinion) two of the most lyrical early Enneagram books. He’s since moved on to other paths, but I see he has lost none of his lyricism or transformative energy.

    I need to hear what you say about staying in the descent. For long enough.

    Will be praying for you tomorrow my friend.

  5. Christine,

    I know that there are many good poems out their on grief, but I thought I’d send you mine (if I haven’t already). It was written about five years after my mother died, so it is a testament to how the waves continue to ebb and flow throughout our lives. And, it fits in with your life by the sea.

    Waves of grief
    begin like a tsunami,

    Sweeping you out to sea,
    no ground to stand on,
    tumbling and tossing you,

    Wrenching you from
    all that is familiar
    until you feel that you may drown.

    But you are thrown to shore
    where you can lift your head and breathe
    before the next wave hits.

    The waves keep returning,
    like the rhythms of birth
    as you struggle to find a new life for yourself.

    In time, you can stand again
    and open your eyes.

    But waves still can hit
    at any unexpected moment
    with an intensity unimagined.

    But they also recede.
    God gives us these respites from pain
    so we can find our way
    further up the beach

    Where we can watch the waves
    and once again
    appreciate the landscape,
    even without the one we love.

  6. Suz, Sue, and Kathy, I am so grateful for each of your very thoughtful and meaningful comments. Thank you for being wise and wonderful women and for offering your comfort.

  7. Christine,

    I’ll be thinking of you…losing someone you love is never easy, but especially your mom. I agree with you; grief is not something we do well in our culture. There is something to be said for going to the wailing wall, pouring our grief forth as it arises in us–honoring what it is we’re feeling. I remember hearing about Leo Buscaglia asking children what their definition of love was. One little boy said, “Love is when my grandpa lets me crawl up in his lap and helps me to cry.” May you be held this Friday.

    Blessings on your journey~Kathy

  8. I missed your post on signs and wonders. Beautifully written, I could feel your pain and your courage. I love how you stayed right in your pain until the solace and comfort emerged. That is a life well lived, Christine :) (Mount Hood – that’s the second time someone has mentioned that place in a week. It looks very beautiful).

    I loved this Rohr quote. Wonderful and true and scary and necessary. I don’t think God will let any of our griefs disappear without redeeming them somehow.

  9. Christine,
    I will be holding you in my thoughts on Friday. This hit me quite personally. I am technically not an orphan as i have three brothers but I lost my mom very suddenly when I was eighteen and it was the most painful experience of my lifetime. There are so many periods of grief and mourning. Personally, I don’t think I was “developmentally” able to begin to come to grips with it until my mid-twenties when I had grown up a bit and was in a secure relationship. Then came my first child at thirty and the deep grief of not having her there. Another one that hit me hard was reaching the age she was when she died and realizing how young she was. I could go on… You are so right. There really are many many little griefs and some have no sense of resolution. We just plod on through the grief on the best we can, I guess.

    I am sure you will find a way to take care of yourself but I will be hoping that you will find some time to wrap yourself in a “fuzzy warm blanket” and feel loved and cared for…whether alone or with someone you trust…or your beloved dog.

    I will be thinking of you.