Holy grief—is there such a thing? Or is all grief horrid, unholy, the pain we cannot welcome? Then again, is holy grief the only kind of grief, the right kind—the other kind of grief is . . . is what? Can someone tell me what unholy grief would be? I have my moments when the thought that any kind of grief could be thought unholy startles me, even strikes me as wrong.
The English word “grief” itself catches the rough, raw plummet into sorrow, mourning, distress, pain, misery. And the religious word “holy,” meaning sacred, set apart, free from moral and spiritual contamination, might seem to be an odd concept to pair with plain, difficult-to-endure sorrow. Putting the two words together in one gasp is probably the last thing many of us consider when in pain. And regardless of the ways in which you’ve experienced grief, what could you say that’d possibly be useful to anyone else? This is the place I start from. (And while I choose to ponder grief in this blog, it’s not because I feel particularly qualified to do so, so I’d be grateful if you’d bear with me.)
As the well-worn cover of my copy of C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain testifies to, besides the Psalms, the Book of Job, Lamentations, and other books in the Bible, this is one of my go-to books when it comes to grief. I go to The Problem of Pain because its author gives no pat answers, no quick consolatory phrases, nothing that minimizes one’s experience. And I go to this book because the author openly declares his own inadequacy for addressing the subject. (When empathy seems lacking, “good advice” feels empty, even rude, doesn’t it?) In his Preface Lewis speaks of the irony of him having written a book on this subject. The disconnect between what he believed about pain and what he felt about pain was such that he wished that he could have published the book anonymously. To which his editor responded that he could explain to readers that he “did not live up to [his] own principles!” While Lewis was willing to speak to the intellectual problem of pain for about 140 pages, he didn’t for a moment feel qualified to teach the necessary “fortitude and patience” when facing pain—and this is what makes him such an authentic fellow pilgrim to have at your side. I applaud his words here: “. . . nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”
Whether grief is holy or unholy (I’m still getting back to this question), the power of giving sympathy and a little of the love of God to others who are in distress speaks volumes. You know it best when you’re the blessed recipient of another’s loving care. And if we are going to memorize Bible verses at all, maybe we should start with the shortest one, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Another focal point is the admonition to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
Tears are a funny thing. A sign of weakness or a sign of strength? Both? But when I cast my vote, I say genuine tears are an under-valued strength. We can rightly blame the later historical development of associating tears with females, and therefore to the extent that we’re all cultural chauvinists, regard them as a sign of weakness. It wasn’t always so—nor is it always so, thank goodness. But whether you cry easily or hardly at all, in our therapeutic culture, all too often, grief seems to be the stage that we’re to get over with and done with, the sooner the better. But what if grief could become the path to consolation, to well-being?
A couple of years ago I had the privilege to contribute to the memorial volume for Christopher W. Mitchell, The Undiscovered C. S. Lewis. My own grief over the passing of our colleague Chris resulted in the essay, “A Holy Grief: The Pilgrim’s Path to Consolation.” The essay begins like this:
“Few experiences challenge our faith in God’s loving character as much as suffering. ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ we cry out. Yet even in our deepest pain, perhaps we often manage to affirm God’s goodness and the hope of ultimate redemption in spite of our brokenness. But in those very darkest places, does our faith console? alleviate our sorrow? Can rational affirmation of faith truly comfort us in grief? heal doubt and despair? prevent emotional breakdown—or, after breakdown, lead to restoration? In A Grief Observed in 1961, C. S. Lewis’s first-person account of suffering following the death of his wife Joy Davidman, the speaker puts the dilemma this way: ‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.’”
Then I explored how in his fiction Lewis invites readers inside experiences of suffering that, if accepted, can lead to subsequent comfort and eventual healing. One of my favourite examples is in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” when the ship’s company encounters the Dark Island where one’s worst nightmares threaten to materialize. Extreme angst, even despair, looms before each one. But Lucy responds to fear with prayer, and little by little, while the darkness is just as thick as ever, she begins to feel a bit better. Then the light grows, the albatross in a voice that sounds like Aslan’s whispers, “Courage, dear heart,” and after a while they are once again in full sunlight. Once again it is clear that Heaven is the one true help. Fear, even debilitating fear, is real, but does not have the final say when we exercise the faintest glimmer of hope—or, as in this case, someone else exercises it on everyone’s behalf. To stick with the boating metaphor,
THERE ARE TIMES WHEN YOU JUST NEED
SOMEONE ELSE TO PADDLE YOUR CANOE.
As Lewis said in one of his letters, “the rule of the universe [is] that others can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and one can paddle every canoe except one’s own” (Letters 2, 953). So we have a choice: we can try to paddle our own canoes through every stormy gale, or ask the One who has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” to take charge (Isaiah 53:4). We know who the best canoeist is, so who’s arguing?
I come back to the question, is there such a thing as unholy grief? I suppose the answer isn’t hard to guess once you’re willing to do so. Unholy grief is grief without hope, grief that is despair, grief that rejects or defies the faith in the Holy One who has overcome death and promises to make all things well—this is unholy grief, grief that refuses consolation, hope. Unholy grief is the one to guard against. We’re told that we grieve not as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), so when grief hits, let’s grieve with the big picture hope.
On this journey that we all find ourselves on, I’d like to draw your attention to a marvellous reflection featuring our Inklings Institute of Canada colleague, Dr. Judith Wolfe, Professor of Philosophical Theology, University of St. Andrews, in which she says, “We have to take seriously the claim that we do not yet live in the world as it will be, and as we will be, and that we have to live towards an eschaton, a presence of God in the world, which is not only not yet apparent, but is not even comprehensible to us. So how do we live authentically in this life?” Watch the 12-minute feature here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtJZILpprss
This April, as we move from Lent to Easter, I’m pondering again the epigraph that Lewis chose for The Problem of Pain, from his declared mentor, George MacDonald, in Unspoken Sermons, First Series: “The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.” His was the holiest of grief, grief endured with the view to ultimate hope. And we are called to be little Christs, following Him.
My prayer for myself and all of us is that when we grieve—or in a real sense never leave off grieving, even as joy surprises us—we will grieve with this hope. That we will be Resurrection people who look to the true hope we have through Christ.
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