Grief Without Evasion
Do Catholics understand grief?
Grief is a very physical reaction to shock and sorrow; the sufferer is confused and fearful. There is an immediacy to it: I am terrified and alone right now, as if I've been left on the side of the road with a broken bone. C.S. Lewis described it perfectly in his book A Grief Observed:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.
During the darkest midnight of my grief my Catholic faith was shaken, but not my belief in God. I still appreciated the ability of art, music, movies and popular culture to provide spiritual solace and provide a lifeline to hold on to. Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, poetry by Christian Wiman, art and music provided healing. I even went on a binge listening to old Howard Stern shows, which were a perfect elixir of rage -- which is a common symptom of grief -- and bold stupidity, which massages the brain as it recovers.
The Catholic Church does the big emotional events in life like no one else. Weddings, births, funerals: the Church takes the stage in all of her splendor when these milestones occur. Yet it has largely lost touch with psychology and insight into the psyche.
When my defection was announced, the main reaction from Catholics was to quote scripture or offer spiritual platitudes. But being told I'm in the desert or reminded not to take Communion was not reaching me -- they were abstractions, unlike a great rock and roll song or the mysticism of a beautiful film. I went to talk to a priest about things, but he just kept pointing to Christ on the cross. It may have been an entirely sensible and even wise gesture, but it was also evasive -- even in terms of the life of Jesus.
I did manage to find one truly great Catholic book on grief: Henri Nouwen's Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times. Nouwen (1932-1996), a Dutch Catholic priest, was known for his wisdom and grace as a writer. He was ordained a Catholic in 1957, but requested permission to study psychology instead of theology. He then studied as a Fellow for two years in the Religion and Psychiatry Program at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka before going to Notre Dame.
While Catholic friends were telling me to turn to the Lord, pray and go to mass, Nouwen had advice that, while not denying the primacy of prayer and the importance of the mass, offered a penetrating extra layer: look directly at the thing you are mourning. Nouwen:
The hardships we all endure require more than words, of course, even spiritual words. Eloquent phrases cannot soothe our deep pain. But we do find something to lead and guide us through. We hear an invitation to allow our mourning to become a place of healing, and our sadness a way through pain to dancing. Who is it Jesus said would be blessed? "Those who mourn." (Matt. 5:4). We learn to look fully at our loses, not evade them. By greeting life's pain with something other than denial we may find something unexpected. By inviting God into our difficulties we ground life -- even its sad moments -- in joy and hope.
Nouwen also warned against "easy victories." We go through our lives in ways that avoid pain and suffering -- "people are buried in ways that shroud death with euphemism and ornate furnishings." We speak "through clenched teeth and prevent healing, honest confrontation." This is quite different from the way of Jesus:
While Jesus brought great comfort and came with kind words and a healing touch, he did not come to take all our pains away. Jesus entered into Jerusalem in his last days on a donkey, like a clown at a parade. This was his way of reminding us that we fool ourselves when we insist on easy victories. When we think we can succeed in cloaking what ails us and our times in pleasantness. Much that is worthwhile only comes through confrontation.
That confrontation can even mean a confrontation with the Church.
When I expressed my doubts about Catholicism, I was disappointed that so many critics retreated to the simple question of whether I had truly left the team or not. No one seemed interested in the fruits of a genuine argument. It pointed to the chasm between the high theology argued by Catholic experts and the Catholic media -- a theology that can come across as glib -- and the simple reality of people's lives lived on the ground.
The Catholic Church once provided philosophers, people like Fulton Sheen and Dietrich Von Hildebrand, who were conversant in pop culture and psychology and could reach people where they lived. Such people are rare in the Church these days, although there are still a few.
For most people, myself included, the healers remain the musicians, sinners, and artists who speak of their grief without evasion -- the clowns riding their donkeys into Jerusalem.