Scott Peck started his book “The Road Less Traveled” with a quote: “Life is difficult.” I found this first sentence strangely comforting when I read that book in my early thirties. Perhaps it made me feel less unique, or alone in my own struggles with life. For the truth is, life is difficult. Something we all know. Everyone, if they live long enough, will in different degrees have difficulties in life. The one that is the most life altering is of course the death of those we hold dear.
We gain much in life. We grow, learn, make choices, some of course are more important than others. Perhaps the most important choice that we can make, towering over what career we will choose, or what religion or philosophy of life we will follow, is how we will relate to the world and those who come into our daily lives. In the end, the most important decision we can make is what to do with our heart, the symbol of mankind’s deepest longings and desires. Choices are made from levels that are often deeper than our everyday consciousness, which is taken up for the most part by our mundane lives. There is however an undercurrent that carries us and it is either open to life or closed and protective. Both ways have a price to pay. It is almost as if we are backed into a corner and we have to choose which way to proceed out from it. From my perspective it is better to be as conscious as we can be when making this choice, for if we don’t we can end up in an endless cycle of deep suffering, tied to the wheel of life being carried along by unconscious forces in our soul’s. For we are deep complex creatures and I believe it will take more than a lifetime to figure it all out.
The ‘heart’ is made for love. Christ talks about “God’ as ‘father’. A human metaphor, pointing to something actually much greater and more loving that any human father can be; as powerful as the love of a father and of course that of a mother is capable of. We are made in the image and likeness of God. What does that mean? God is love, so is that what we are at our deepest most part; are we beings of love. Our literature, movies, music and paintings often deal with this subject; love. In catholic imagery we have the ‘Sacred Heart’. If one reads the revelation that come from this devotion, if one is lead to that kind of thing…..the outpouring of love and longing attributed to Christ and be overwhelming in their emotional outpouring. There is pain in these revelations. In the Prophet Hosea this can also be seen, the price that love demands from even God, which for some is a scandal, so they have nothing to do with this kind of thing and understandably so.
In order to face life fully and the pain that comes from the fact that we simply exist; has to be embraced in its totality. I think it was Thomas Mann, the famous writer, when asked about what it was like to be one of the top writers of his time, responded, “I wish someone would have told me that when you get to the top there is nothing there.” One of the corners we are backed into is the reality that no matter how hard we work, or seek; if we look in the wrong places, will sadly end up with a lot of ‘nothing’. The problem with love as any parent can attest who is a good one; is that to simply love ones children is a deep form of suffering as well as joy. Also, parental love leads to separation in the end, for the child as it grows moves towards independence, so a lot of letting go is required of a good parent. However I have never had a parent tell me that they regret this love, nor the suffering that goes with it, for there is also great joy, warmth and the movement for many in a new kind of relationship with their children as they grow older. Sadly this is not always true, for there are many kinds of deaths in life and relationships don’t necessarily grow in intimacy as the years pass.
Then there is the loss of the death of a loved one. The deeper the love, the greater the sorrow when death comes and they are taken away. For there is a corresponding death for the one left behind, that creates a wound that will takes years to heal, and even then the loss is still felt and longings still there. Yet, that is what keeps us alive, this love, this longing if we allow our hearts to stay open. In any relationship, there will almost always be one left behind to mourn, yet people entered into these kinds of relationships all of the time knowing on some level that one day, one will be left behind. This goes for all relationships that have love as an ingredient. There is the love between friends, and then married couples, the love for parents for their children and of course the children for their parents. Those who make care giving a career also have to face the loss of those they care for, some who are loved very much. We enter freely into a situation that gives us joy and makes life worthwhile knowing that one day a price will have to be paid, though it is one that is worth it. The alternative is to shut down, which is really not an escape but a prison. The shutting down is always before each of us, for the pain of love and loss cannot be separated.
Each of us here, at this retreat has come because they have been deeply wounded by love and loss. There are many ways to lose a loved one and while all bring deep sorrow, some deaths also bring deep anger and rage, if the loss was caused through some crime, or perhaps an accident. Faith while it is the center most force in life, cannot take away from this suffering, it has to be endured, gotten through, yet each person will do so at their own pace. Loss, however it happens, is not something that can be gotten rid of or hurried along as if it was some kind of project. We are not protected from the happenings of life by our faith, but we are accompanied, we are not alone, no matter what our emotions or feelings may tell. So yes, in our loss, in our pain and confusion, even when in deep rage and feelings of despair, we can bring all of that before the One who accompanies us on our journey, or we can close off, both are difficult choices.
Human beings are limited in how we can enter into the suffering of another. We can care and listen, but we cannot fix. It is when we try to fix someone else that troubles starts. God accompanies, he does not fix, he listens, touches us deeply, but we are not spared the cross that is so much a part of our lives. Christ himself suffers with us in our sorrow and pain. The central message of the Christian faith is that we all, even if unaware, have a deep, intimate relationship with God, and that relationship is the revelation of “God with us”, Christ Jesus. Not always a comfort in the midst of our own sufferings, yet it is a strength. For with Christ Jesus, we can express our rage, anger, our incomprehension in why we have to go through what we do. It is in that trust, that we are accompanied, that leads to our being honest with God when all else is stripped away. For in the end, it is only the Eternal, the infinite one, revealed as love that can enter with us fully in our struggles to simply stay above the waves.
We are pilgrims; we are on a journey, which is something that can be forgotten. There is really no real rest for us, for time is the train we travel on and we each will get off at a different stop. One day each one of us will leave behind loved ones who will mourn, it is simply the way things are, as hard as that may seem. Yet when Christ Jesus died, it seemed the end, there was only pain, and that cannot be underestimated by any kind of pious sentiment. He was deserted except by his women followers and John. Yet, we know the end of the story don’t we? So the death of our loved ones, no matter how painful it is, or no matter how it happened; will one day, no matter how hard that is to believe ‘today’, will lead to the joy of reunion. I think it takes courage to believe that, to continue in hope even when things deem to be the darkest.