This month’s blog series is “Gathering the Graces”. St. Ignatius invites us to ask God for a grace each time we pray. This month, blog contributors will share stories about the graces God has given them and where God is leading them.
Flies appeared out of nowhere, black, confused. Six buzzed, anxious behind my kitchen sink as I filled the electric kettle for pour-over coffee. As water came to a boil, I began shooing them out of the kitchen toward the balcony door. Steam rose. Thoughts swirled. At least a dozen more flies were creeping around the sliding screen door. Unexpected tears welled up. All I could think was “Good Grief!”
Thus began a challenging weekend.
You may be surprised to be reading about a fly invasion and grief when our September “Into the Deep” theme is “Gathering the Graces.” “Grace” is a typical translation from the Greek word charis, frequently used in the letters of St. Paul, that we typically understand to mean unmerited gifts or favors from God. In this context, perhaps St. Ignatius is a bit audacious when he instructs us to ask for the grace we seek. However, these Saints also know we can trust God to provide what we actually need in the form and sufficient measure to serve us best. These days as I pray through my Examen desiring to notice God’s presence through attending to my feelings, I sometimes struggle to receive and give thanks for all things as gifts when they come with a powerful undertow of grief and sadness.
A round of emotional tug-of-war started the day before the flies. I had trouble falling asleep. After a restless night I knew I was tired, but had not yet identified the depth of my sadness. Flies materialized hour after hour. I continued to execute my counter-invasion strategy. They were attracted to the light, so I partially closed the curtains to draw them toward the door.
As the day passed, I tried sticking to my weekend routines – prayer, laundry, cooking, ‘stopping by Amazon’ to purchase a few household items – but I couldn’t get myself down seven floors and outside for a walk. I had a growing awareness of a vulnerability-driven anxiety vibrating at increasing speed. Normally kept safely tucked away, I began to feel a bit like the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge wobbling toward collapse (watch here).
A simplistic explanation in freshman engineering classes is that the bridge collapsed because of forced harmonic resonance. More precisely, “moderate winds produced aeroelastic flutter that was self-exciting and unbounded.” Without a “negative damping factor” the amplitude of the oscillation continuously increased until the bridge dramatically collapsed.
I thought the fly-crisis was over that evening, but it was only the sun going down. They were back full force Sunday morning. One moment while escorting the files outside the sun illuminated their true colors. Iridescent blue and green bodies shimmered with aeroelastic flutter, desperate for release.
Those who have crossed a grief bridge know that the journey is unpredictable. Like agitating trapped flies, just a little nudge left unattended has the power to amplify our emotions to debilitating levels leading to collapse.
Francis Weller, in the preface to his book, Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, identifies “two primary sins of Western Civilization: amnesia and anesthesia – we forget and we go numb. These two sins account for an amazing range of sorrow.” (p. xx). Weller suggests,
For the most part, grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential part of being human. Grief becomes problematic when the conditions needed to help us work with grief are absent. For example, when we are forced to carry our sorrow in isolation, or when the time needed to fully metabolize the nutrients of a particular loss is denied, and we are pressured to return to “normal” too soon. We are told to “get on with it” and “get over it.” The lack of courtesy and compassion surrounding grief is astonishing, reflecting an underlying fear and mistrust of this basic human experience. (pp.xvii-xix)
We are experiencing a great deal of death and dying during this pandemic, without the usual support. Death of loved ones we can’t properly mourn. Former ways of working, schooling and communicating are passing away daily. At times like these the ‘enemy of our human nature’ wants to leverage the separation, making the darkness attractive, tempting us to despair, tricking us into thinking social-distancing is the same as physical, unduly separating us from receiving support from others. Others are deceived into thinking the pandemic has come to end and we can return to business as usual.
Grace allows me to name my grief, and acknowledge my reliance on faith in these unprecedented times. Weller proposes that “We must restore the healing ground of grief. We must find the courage, once again, to walk its wild edge” (p.xix). While we understand charis as a free gift from God, the word also has implications of power. Praying for grace is also praying for spiritual power. I continue to pray for the grace and power of fortitude.
Grace sometimes only appears in the smallest of ways when held in grief’s tight grasp, but it allows me to continue to pray, in search of perspective and goodness. When black flies turn up again, I will take a deep breath, draw the curtains for a time, patiently shoo their anxious, buzzing bodies towards the light, and bless their hidden beauty carried away in the breeze.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)
- Other authors helpful for discovering graces within grief and sorrow include artist and poet Jan Richardson (newest book Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life) and Duke theologian Kate Bowler (find on Facebook or read Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved)
- Though his book and app, Reimagining the Examen App, Fr. Mark Thibodeaux, S.J., offers creative adaptations for different life circumstances.
- For considerations of how we might respond upon receiving grace, see chapter five of Relational Grace: The Reciprocal and Binding Covenant of Charis, by Brent J. Schmidt, https://www.byunewtestamentcommentary.com/pauls-use-of-the-word-grace/
Photo by Trevor McGowan on Unsplash.