25 January 2014

Grief, melancholy, sunsets, and eternity

One week ago today marked the 26th year since the death of my mother.  I have been pondering this post since then, looking for the right words.  Words in these moments are not always easy to find.; whether or not I have found them remains to be seen.

As might be expected, I have spent a good part of the last week reflecting on more than a quarter century of life without my parents, and me being not quite yet 36 years of age.  Many often say that no parent should ever have to bury a child; the reverse is also true.

When I reflected on  the 25th anniversary of my father's death, I wrote:
...sadness, like joy, is comfortable to me, a welcome companion from time to time as it reminds me of the goodness of the Lord and the promise of eternal merriment. 
These words remain true today, and perhaps even more so.  This is not to say that I am depressed, but rather that, to quote Frodo Baggins, "I am wounded, wounded; it will never really heal."  These wounds have brought great sorrow, but they have also taught me much.  They will not heal this side of eternity because "love is strong as death" (Song of Songs 8:6).

A few weeks back I received a letter from a friend who recently lost her husband of 62 years.  Reflecting on my experience of death, I wrote to her:
As we mourn the loss of those we love so dearly, well-meaning family and friends often seek to comfort us with clichés, which are generally as untrue as they are lame.  Not quite willing to enter into our suffering, they turn uncomfortably to words.

We hear especially these days the adage that “time heals all wounds.”  The experience of life has taught me this is quite false; time may soothe our wounds and make them easier to bear, but it does not, it cannot, entirely heal them.  The full healing of our wounds can only occur where time no longer passes, in the presence of Him who died for us and still bears his wounds, the marks of his love.  The wounds of grief are easy to bear one day and the next they are a great burden indeed; such is the price of love.

The bad moments will continue, but good moments will also come.  Likely enough, you will come to know a joy mingled with sadness, and a sadness mingled with joy.  J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings, possessed many profound insights into the mystery of life and death.  After the One Ring had been destroyed in the fire of Mount Doom, much had already been lost but much had also been saved.  As the deeds of the heroes were made known, Tolkien recounts the following scene:

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed.  And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

Do not be afraid of these tears, mingled with joy and sorrow, for “not all tears are an evil.”
Yes, the experience of death has indeed brought me to that region where pain and delight flow together, where not all tears are evil, where sadness and joy are comfortable.

Yesterday a friend shared a very short clip from an episode of Doctor Who (a show I really do not like) which seems quite apropos:

Good lines can sometimes come from bad shows.

Perhaps sadness is not the correct word; melancholy, I think, would be truer and closer to it.  Victor Hugo described it as "the pleasure of being said," and Aristotle said that "melancholy men are of all others the most witty."  David Hume noted something a bit more profound, that "men are much oftener thrown on their knees by the melancholy than by the agreeable passions."

There's a very good description of the melancholic person at Fish Eaters (much of it fits, but not all) that says of the melancholic:
The melancholic looks at life always from the serious side. At the core of his heart there is always a certain sadness, 'a weeping of the heart,' not because the melancholic is sick or morbid, as many claim, but because he is permeated with a strong longing for an ultimate good (God) and eternity, and feels continually hampered by earthly and temporal affairs and impeded in his cravings. The melancholic is a stranger here below and feels homesick for God and eternity.
The other day I went for a walk with one of the other priests here at the Casa Santa Maria to visit the church of Saint Agnes and our conversation shifted to places warm and sunny (it's been cloudy and rainy in Rome later, with a damp chill in the air).  He asked what I enjoyed most about Hawaii.

After a moment's thought I told him either the sunrises or the sunsets, but a moment later I knew for certain: The sunsets are what I most enjoy.

When I visited Hawaii in August of 2012, I wrote:
It seems nearly impossible, seeing the beauty of this land, not to be drawn towards the Lord.  The lapping waves on the shore draw your thoughts to eternity; the brilliance of the stars leads your thoughts to the heavens; the wind seems a gentle kiss; the mountains recall God's firmness and strength; the many colored flowers of varied shapes and sizes are but gifts of love.  It is difficult here to be lost in created things but easy to be led to the Creator; here the fragrance of the Lord is to be found everywhere.
This is all true.  Still, there is something about the setting sun over the deep waters that beckons; something sings  As The Little Prince said, "You know, when you're feeling very sad, sunsets are wonderful."  Like the sadness of grief, sunsets deepen our longing for eternity; so it is that even as they are melancholy, they are filled with joy.

The melancholic knows well the plea of the Psalmist:
One thing I ask of the LORD;
this I seek:
To dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD
and contemplate his temple (Psalm 27:4).
There, in the presence of the Lord, we will be united with those who have gone before us in faith.  There, with the Lord, we will be with our loved ones and our wounds at long last healed.

1 comment:

  1. A very keen and thought provoting analysis.