Grieving as a Spiritual Exercise


In a remarkable book, The Inner Voice of Love, written while he was in a deep emotional depression, Henri Nouwen shares these words: “The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to try to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart.  In your head you analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them.  But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.”

He’s right; your heart is greater than your wounds, though it needs caution in dealing with them. Wounds can soften your heart; but they can also harden you heart and freeze it in bitterness. So what’s the path here? What leads to warmth and what leads to coldness?

In a remarkable essay, The Drama of the Gifted Child, the Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller, tells us what hardens the heart and what softens it. She does so by outlining a particular drama that commonly unfolds in many lives. For her, giftedness does not refer to intellectual prowess but to sensitivity. The gifted child is the sensitive child. But that gift, sensitivity, is a mixed blessing.  Positively, it lets you feel things more deeply so that the joys of living will mean more to you than to someone who is more callous. That’s its upside.

Conversely, however, if you are sensitive you will habitually fear disappointing others and will forever fear not measuring up. And your inadequacy to always measure up will habitually trigger feelings of anxiety and guilt within you.  As well, if you are extraordinarily sensitive, you will tend to be self-effacing to a fault, letting others have their way while you swallow hard as your own needs aren’t met and then absorb the consequences. Not least, if you feel things deeply you will also feel hurt more deeply.  That’s the downside of sensitivity and makes for the drama that Alice Miller calls the “drama of the gifted child”, the drama of the sensitive person.

Further, in her view, for many of us that drama will only begin to really play itself out in our middle and later years, constellating in frustration, disappointment, anger, and bitterness, as the wounds of our childhood and early adulthood begin to break through and overpower the inner mechanisms we have set up to resist them. In mid-life and beyond, our wounds will make themselves heard so strongly that our habitual ways of denial and coping no longer work.  In mid-life you realize that your mother did love your sister better than you, that your father in fact didn’t care much about you, and that all those hurts you absorbed because you swallowed hard and played the stoic are still gnawing away bitterly inside you. That’s how the drama eventually culminates, in a heart that’s angry.

So where does that leave us? For Alice Miller, the answer lies in grieving. Our wounds are real and there is nothing we can do about them, pure and simple. The clock can’t be turned back. We cannot relive our lives so as to provide ourselves with different parents, different childhood friends, different experiences on the playground, different choices, and a different temperament. We can only move forward so as to live beyond our wounds.  And we do that by grieving. Alice Miller submits that the entire psychological and spiritual task of midlife and beyond is that of grieving, mourning our wounds until the very foundations of our lives shake enough so that there can be transformation.  

A deep psychological scar is the same as having some part of your body permanently damaged in an accident. You will never be whole again and nothing can change that. But you can be happy again; perhaps more happy than ever before. But that loss of wholeness must be grieved or it will manifest itself in anger, bitterness, and jealous regrets.

The Jesuit music composer and spiritual writer, Roc O’Connor, makes the same point, with the added comment that the grieving process also calls for a long patience within which we need to wait long enough so that the healing can occur according to its own natural rhythms.  We need, he says, to embrace our wounded humanity and not act out. What’s helpful, he suggests, is to grieve our human limitations. Then we can endure hunger, emptiness, disappointment, and humiliation without looking for a quick fix – or for a fix at all.  We should not try to fill our emptiness too quickly without sufficient waiting.

And we won’t ever make peace with our wounds without sufficient grieving.

The Arrival of Refugees, Old and New


The religious congregation to which I belong, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, has had a long relationship with the indigenous peoples of North America. Admittedly it hasn’t always been without its shortcomings on our side, but it has been a sustained one, constant through more than one hundred and fifty years. I write this out of the archives of that history.

In the mid-1800s, a group of young Oblates left France to work with the native peoples of Oregon and Washington State. Given the means of travel at the time, particularly the challenge of crossing the entire United States, much of it on horseback, it took them almost a year to get from Marseilles to the Oregon coast.  Among that group was a young missionary, Charles Pandosy.

In the summer of 1854, Governor Stevens had called for a meeting of Native chiefs to be held at Walla Walla to discuss the tension between the USA government and the Natives. One of the tribes was stubbornly rebelling, the Yakima, a tribe led by their chief, Kamiakin, with whom the Oblates and Fr. Pandosy had been working. At one point, Chief Kamiakin turned to Pandosy for advice.  

In a letter written to our Founder in France, Saint Eugene de Mazenod, dated June 5th, 1854, Fr. Pandosy summed up his conversation with the Yakima chief. Not knowing what Europe looked like and not knowing how many people lived there or what forces were driving people to come to North America, the Native Chief had asked Fr. Pandosy how many white men there were and when they would stop coming, naively believing that there couldn’t be that many of them left to come.

In his letter, Fr. Pandosy shares, verbatim, part of his conversation with Kamiakin: “It is as I feared. The whites will take your country as they have taken other countries from the Indians. I came from the land of the white man far to the east where the people are thicker than the grass on the hills. Where there are only a few here now, others will come with each year until your country will be overrun with them … you and your lands will be taken and your people driven from their homes. It has been so with other tribes; it will be so with you. You may fight and delay for a time this invasion, but you cannot avert it. I have lived many summers with you and baptized a great number of your people into the faith. I have learned to love you. I cannot advise you or help you. I wish I could.”

Sound familiar? One doesn’t have to strain any logic to see a parallel to the situation today as millions of refugees are crowding the borders the United States, Canada, and much of Europe, seeking to enter these countries. Like Chief Kamiakin, we who are living in those countries and passionately consider them our “own” are very much in the dark as to how many of people are looking to come here, what pressures are driving them here, and when the seeming endless flow of people will stop. As well, like those indigenous tribes who back then had their lives irrevocably altered by us entering their country we too tend to feel this an unlawful and unfair invasion and are resistant to allowing these people to share our land and our cities with us.

When people initially came to North and South America from Europe they came for various reasons. Some were fleeing religious persecution, some were seeking a way out of poverty and starvation, some were coming to work to send money back to support their families, some were doctors or clergy coming to minister to others, and, yes, some too were criminals bent on crime.

It would seem not much has changed, except the shoe is now on the other foot. We, original invaders, are now the indigenous tribes, solicitous and protective of what we consider as rightfully ours, fearful of the outsiders, mostly naïve as to why they’re coming.

This isn’t just the case in North America, most of Europe is experiencing the exact same pressures, except in their case they’ve had a longer time to forget how their ancestors once came from elsewhere and mostly displaced the indigenous peoples who were already there.

Admittedly, this isn’t easy to resolve, politically or morally: No country can simply open its borders indiscriminately to everyone who wants to enter; and yet, and yet, our scriptures, Jewish and Christian, are unequivocal in affirming that the earth belongs everyone and that all people have the same right to God’s good creation. That moral imperative can seem unfair and impractical; but how do we justify the fact that we displaced others to build our lives here but now find it unfair that others are doing the same thing to us.

Looking at the refugee crisis in the world today one sees that what goes around does eventually come around.

Creating and Holding Space for our Brokenness


Some years ago I went on a weekend retreat given by a woman who made no secret about the fact that not being able to have children constituted a deep wound in her life. So she offered retreats on the pain of being unable to have children. Being a celibate and not having my own children, I went on one of these retreats, the only man to venture there. The rest of the participants were women, mostly in their 40s and 50s, who had not borne children of their own.

Our leader, using scripture, biography, poetry, and psychology, examined the issue of barrenness from many points of view. The retreat came to a head on Saturday evening with a ritual in chapel in which various participants went up a huge cross and spoke out their pain for Jesus and everyone else to hear. That was followed by us watching, together, the British movie, Secrets and Lies, within which one woman’s heartache at being unable to conceive a child is powerfully highlighted. Afterwards there was a lot of honest sharing of feelings – and lots and lots of tears! But after that painful sharing of pain and the over-generous tears which accompanied it, the entire atmosphere changed, as if some dark storm had just done its thing but left us still intact. There was relief, and plenty of laughter and lightheartedness. A storm had indeed passed us over and we were safe.

All pain can be borne if it can be shared. Art Schopenhauer is credited with saying that, but, irrespective of who said it first, it captures what happened at that retreat. A deep pain was made easier to bear not because it was taken away but because it was shared, and shared in a “sacramental” way. Yes, there are sacraments that don’t take place in a church, but still have sacramental power. And we need more of these.

For example, Rachel Held Evans writes: “Often I hear from readers who have left their churches because they had no songs for them to sing after the miscarriage, the shooting, the earthquake, the divorce, the diagnosis, the attack, the bankruptcy. The American tendency toward triumphalism, of optimism rooted in success, money, and privilege, will infect and sap of substance any faith community that has lost its capacity for holding space for those in grief.”

She’s right. Our churches aren’t creating enough space for holding grief. In essence: In the everyday, practical spirituality of community, prayer, liturgy, and Eucharist within our churches we don’t lean sufficiently on the fact that Christ is both a dying and a rising reality. We generally don’t take the dying part of Christ as seriously as we should. What are the consequences?

Among other things, it means that we don’t create enough communal, ritual celebrations in our churches within which people can feel free to own and express their brokenness and grief communally and in a “sacramental” way. Granted our churches do have funeral rites, sacraments of the sick, reconciliation services, special prayer services after a tragedy within a community, and other rituals and gatherings that are powerful spaces for holding grief and brokenness. However (with the exception of the sacrament of reconciliation which though is generally a private, one-to-one ritual) these are generally tied to a special, singular circumstance such as a death, a serious sickness, or an episodic tragedy within a community. What we lack are regular ecclesially- based, communal rituals, analogous to an Alcoholics  Anonymous meetings, around which people can come, share their brokenness, and experience a grace that can only  come from community.

We need various kinds of “sacramental” celebrations in our churches within which, to use Rachel Held Evans’ terminology, we can create and hold space for those who are grieving a broken heart, a miscarriage, an abortion, a dire medical diagnosis, a bankruptcy, the loss of a job, a divorce, a forced retirement, a rejection in love, the death of a cherished dream, the movement into assisted living, the adjustment to an empty nest within a marriage, barrenness, and frustrations of every kind.  

What will these rituals look like?  Mostly they don’t exist yet so it is up to us to invent them. Charles Taylor suggests that the religious struggle today is not so much a struggle of faith but a struggle of the imagination. Nobody has ever lived in this kind of world before. We need some new rituals. We’re pioneers in new territory, and pioneers have to improvise. Admittedly, pain and brokenness have always been with us, but past generations had communal ways of creating space for holding grief. Families, communities, and churches then had less of a struggle with the kind individualism that today leaves us mostly alone to deal with our brokenness. Today there’s no longer a sufficient communal and ecclesial structure to help us accept that, here in this life, we live “mourning and weeping in a valley of tears.”  

We need to imagine some new, sacramental rituals within which to help hold our grief.