“Amen, amen I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.”
John 16: 20
Later in my mother’s life, but before she had descended into the worst of her dementia, she and I had a conversation about the death of her newborn first child and the death, at a young age, of her first husband. When I asked her about why she had not spoken more about these significant aspects of her life, she responded: “You don’t talk about sad things.” My mother was, as the first generation of immigrant parents often are, a doer and a manager. What she would have seen as feeling sorry for yourself or looking for sympathy was not an option. When difficult things would happen, you worked harder than ever to overcome them. She was a true believer in the power of our own will to overcome any adversity and to create a new and more successful life. In order to do this, however, she obviously felt that the pain and suffering of life was to be forgotten and perhaps, if necessary, even suppressed.
If one asks non-Americans what characteristics they associate with Americans, one frequently mentioned is certain to be optimism. In part, no doubt, because of the very size of the landmass and the possibilities of the wilderness, there has always been a sense in the American spirit of being able to leave behind and even escape the sufferings of the present and to “head west” to create a new life and identity. In the passages from John’s gospel we are currently reading, however, we see a different perspective. Here Jesus is teaching the disciples that the gift of the Spirit, of new possibilities, will come to them as a result of their “going through” the pain and grief of separation. The passage from flesh to spirit requires of us a capacity for suffering and for mourning. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
This spiritual directive is not, as my mother might have feared, a summons to self-pity, melancholy, or depression. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. it is a willingness to enter purgatory, to have our unreal senses of ourselves, of our own power, and of life burned away and purified, that we might begin to recognize our true place vis-a-vis the sovereignty of God. Adrian van Kaam teaches that “bioeros” is transformed into “transeros” through the experience of disappointment. Hope is different from optimism. Optimism is confidence in our own power to set things right on our own terms. Hope is abandonment in loving trust to God’s will and way. It is to believe in the love that is in things as they are, and not as we would have them. We learn this lesson in disappointment and mourning.
The spiritual call to abandonment is a difficult one for us. Part of the problem is that we think of abandonment as quietism and will-lessness. Yet in the scriptural and spiritual sense, abandonment comes as a result of a new found appreciation of God’s way and will in our lives, one to which we come through separation from and mourning of our desires and longings for life on our own terms. This time, the stage of weeping and mourning, however, cannot be avoided or leapt over. When we too readily spiritualize our experiences of loss and lack, we create but a new, and only apparently “spiritual”, false form of life. Kerkegaard taught that “the spirit works and the soul suffers.” Our work of life reformation and transformation must come out of our willingness to suffer what we must go through in life.
How do we practice this teaching in our ordinary day to day lives? One way is to grow in the practice of self-presence. It is to develop a mindful awareness of who we are and what we are experiencing as we go through our lives. This is not at all as easy as it may at first sound. In ordinary life we tend to “work” on our world in such a way that we are “out of ourselves” as we do so. In our activity we are often dissociated from our own experience at every level of our lives. Often enough, for example, we do not pay attention to how we are using our bodies as we work. As result we can wind up injuring ourselves in one way or another because of the undue strain we put on ourselves without realizing it. Similarly, we can take on tasks or agree to certain responsibilities without taking into account our own physical, emotional or spiritual limits. The results are often damaging to ourselves and perhaps to the persons or situations which we are attempting to serve. If we are interacting with others mindless, for example, of our own fear of them, we may wind up inflicting some form of physical or emotional violence on them, much to our own surprise.
Pain and disappointment are hard to bear. Yet, they are, in a spiritual sense, our greatest teachers. Adrian van Kaam has written that we must come “to learn the truth that every pain conceals.” This is the way to life in our spirit and in the the Holy Spirit. It is easy, and almost natural, to go through the events of life without inhabiting our own lives. In such a case, we would never come to live our life in the Spirit that God has created. To live the pain of our own true existence and call is our only way. To mourn all of the losses and lacks along the way is how we become a space for the Spirit to come alive in us.
Our mourning is turned to joy as we recognize that God’s love is so much more than we ever could have anticipated, and certainly than we could ever have known on our own. To realize that, however, requires of us that we suffer along the way the losses of everyone and everything that have mediated that love to us. This is why Jesus “must go”, as he tells his disciples. If he does not, they will never come to the fullness of the Spirit. So it is with us. We cannot lay claim to the Spirit on our own terms. We cannot skip over the part where we suffer and mourn loss. As my mother, we all fear that we cannot bear the sad things of life, that loss and disappointment will overwhelm us. Yet, in truth we are able to bear our own lives and all that is part of them because we are spirit. Doing so with full heart and spirit is our way, our only way to “come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.”
Tea at the Palaz of Hoon
Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.
What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?
Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:
I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.