A colleague (thanks, Mark!) sent me a link today about some Catholic Sisters who give one another space to face illness and death with peace and dignity. Note especially this section:
Dr. McCann [who works closely with the sisters] said that the sisters’ religious faith insulated them from existential suffering — the “Why me?” refrain commonly heard among those without a belief in an afterlife. Absent that anxiety and fear, Dr. McCann said, there is less pain, less depression, and thus the sisters require only one-third the amount of narcotics he uses to manage end-of-life symptoms among hospitalized patients.
I don’t think this is because these sisters have squelched or denied their pain and fear and anger. Those who commit their lives to God in such a complete way have never struck me as trying to use religion as an escapist, Marxian opiate. Rather, these are individuals who have used their faith in God and their connection to each other to work through the pain and to emerge beyond it. Some of them may have skipped being angry at God, and some may have let loose in the anger I previously described, trusting God to hold them through it. But they have come to a place on the other side of that.
Let’s talk about grace in and beyond anger.
In accepting that we are angry at God (or hurt or scared or in pain and crying out at God about it), we experience one kind of grace, one blessing, and that is the one I am trying to share with families in those first intense moments of anger and pain. God loves us anyway. We are hurt beyond anything we can imagine, and we need a place to vent, and God can hold it, and that is amazing. Thank God.
More than that, God can hold the pain itself. Often when we undergo extreme pain and loss, we don’t want to burden anyone with the depth of the emotions we’re experiencing. Either we fear that a person won’t be able to relate (and no one has experienced that *exact* pain we’re facing), or that it will be too similar to a pain they have faced and we’ll be pouring salt on their woulds in discussing ours, or that the sheer intensity of our emotional reaction will be frightening and off-putting. Not everyone can absorb a flood of tears or withstand throat-searing yelling with grace. But God can. And God knows the worst pain imaginable– not just the pain of losing God’s own child, although for parents who have lost a child, that is immensely comforting to know– but if God truly is, as I believe, in and through all things, and if God truly loves, as I believe, each of us as beloved children, and if God truly lives, as I believe, in each of us, closer than we are to ourselves, then our pain is God’s pain, our loss is God’s loss, our emotion is God’s emotion, and so we have the one truest, strongest ‘person’ with whom we can share it. Thank God.
A second kind of grace comes in realizing our underlying assumption. If we are angry at God, then we must believe on some level that there is a God to be angry at. Not a distant, powerless God, either, since such a God won’t or can’t help us and so therefore has not abandoned us to our pain. No, somewhere in lamenting to God, we are also confessing that we believe. We are somehow admitting that we trust God to help us, which is why we feel betrayed in this moment. At the moment of greatest pain, this is not much consolation. Great; I believe in my God, but my God has forsaken me. That’s kind of where Jed Bartlet is in that West Wing scene. That’s kind of where the author of Psalm 22 is at the moment of writing it, and where in many ways the One who spoke Psalm 22 from his cross was at that moment. But in hindsight, in the breaths between the pain, there are these moments where it’s clear, sometimes for the first time, sometimes as a reminder or renewal, that in moments of distress, it’s God we seek and somehow, despite it all, it’s God in whom we trust. Thank God, again.
But, as Mark and I have been discussing, deep faith calls us to move beyond these moments, to come to experience and know God and our condition in new ways, to move beyond the understanding of God that would cause us to simply fling insults and trust God to hold pain, but allow us to be held by God in other ways. On the other side of anger– and there is an other side!– can we find a relationship with God that moves beyond good and evil, beyond pain and no-pain, beyond anger and forgiveness? Can we trust in a God who moves alongside us, but isn’t just someone to issue us passes on the suffering of life nor someone to hold our hand when suffering comes? Is there more that God can be, more that we can be?
These sisters have found some of this, in their commitment to God and to one another. They have found that in loving community there is a balm that is greater than any drug, and that there is a dignity in knowing and loving one another than can overcome the indignity of failing bodies and minds. They have found a peace that is beyond anger, beyond understanding, beyond what I can communicate in a blog post, that’s for sure.
But I’d like to seek it. And I’m pretty sure that church should be one of the communities that does seek it together, by holding one another with that level of commitment and love and together finding a God who is more than a feckless thug, who is more than the one who can bear our insults and hold our pain, who is more than the one we trust, but is also the Other and the wholly (Holy) other and the… something for which words fail me, so help me with your thoughts and maybe we can puzzle some of this out together.