From Hiraeth to Hope: Healthy Grieving

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful Welsh word: hiraeth. It’s one of those impossible-to-translate words. Hiraeth describes a nostalgic longing, a homesick yearning, a painful ache – perhaps for a homeland or an era that no longer exists. The Welsh are quite insistent that it means much more than mere nostalgia for past people or things or places. It wells up from deep within our hearts, and may include grieving over a past that never was or a future that could have been but is now impossible. It seems to seek a true homeland whose grasp is elusive, one that could never fully be attained or sustained in this life. In that regard, hiraeth and hope seem closely connected.

Hope is a God-given virtue that increases in us a deep desire for fulfillment in Christ’s Kingdom. Hope allows us to be aided by the Holy Spirit so that we can renounce self-reliance and place our trust entirely in Christ and his promises, which will never deceive or disappoint. For he is Truth itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1818) describes hope as elevating and purifying our own yearnings for happiness, bringing them all into subjection to Christ and his Kingship, ordering them towards their true fulfillment. Hope liberates us from discouragement and sustains us when we feel alone and abandoned.

How do we move from hiraeth to hope?

I am convinced that the process involves healthy grieving of one kind or another. Jesus tells us that those who mourn are blessed, and that they will be comforted. Every tear will be wiped away. But we must first pass through the dark places of our heart, our valleys of tears – preferably with all earthly and heavenly helps at our disposal.

Hiraeth is described as bittersweet – and not merely because one had something happy that is now gone. There is so much more. I believe the bitter ache is welling up from a much deeper place in our heart, a dark valley that most of us fear and avoid. The sweetness is welling up from an even deeper place, a place beyond the valley of tears, where God whispers our true eternal identity in our  heart.

Ecclesiastes describes an appointed time for everything under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, etc. The author remarks that God has “placed the timeless into their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our deepest, truest self knows that all else is vanity and emptiness, and will pass away. That inevitable loss is sad indeed. But hope of our true destiny spurs us on, giving us the determination and the endurance that we need to pass through the valley of tears.

How do we grieve well? The ancients tell us that virtue is found in the middle course. One extreme is to be stuck in the past, paralyzed by nostalgia, incapable of letting go or moving on. At the opposite extreme some of us “rush ahead” into hope, pretending like everything is swell. In doing so, we are denying or minimizing our pain. It will come back with a vengeance. I think of the Pixar film Inside Out as a masterful illustration of our need for healthy grieving and the unhelpfulness of trying to mask over our pain with false joy or false hope.

Just as abiding in the Lord and bearing fruit is long and patient work, so also walking the path from hiraeth to hope will often be slow and arduous. It may require the hard work of clearing out obstacles or cooperating with God in removing toxic filth. It is not a “one and done” task. Therapists compare grieving with the process of peeling layers from an onion. We shed so many tears and receive so much healing that we think the process must surely be done now – only to discover more layers.

Our pain may come from various sources: death of loved ones, sudden tragedy, betrayal or victimization, childhood abuse or neglect, or the creeping realization of old age and human mortality. Often it is the oldest wounds, still unhealed, that cause the most pain. When we find ourselves “overreacting” to a situation in the present moment, it is likely a sign that the situation somehow poked at an old unhealed wound. Such moments are painful, but they are great opportunities to receive the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one.” Therefore being a Christian means allowing ourselves to be anointed. Receiving ointment on unhealed wounds is painful, but is far better than leaving them to fester!

When life touches an old wound, rather than blame the person or situation that upset us, we can heed the invitation to return to the valley of tears. There we can receive strength and anointing from on high, which always happens so much better in healthy community than as an isolated individual. We can reach out to trusted friends, the godly people in our life who know better than to try to “fix” our problems, who will listen to us and give us the encouragement we need to persevere.

On this journey, I think of the wise men following the star together to Bethlehem. They experience a longing very akin to hiraeth. They don’t go it alone, but travel together. They are humble enough to seek and receive guidance from others. They support and encourage one another during their long trek. They have no idea where they are ultimately going, but they trust the deepest yearnings of their heart, and they recognize truth and goodness and beauty when they find it.

When it comes to healthy grieving, sojourning from hiraeth to hope, we very much need the support of others. In communion with them, we will be more open to receiving the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. We will be more disciplined in rooting out from the valley of tears the poisonous plants that block our path to our true homeland.

There are other hindrances and helps to consider. I’ll share more next time.

Living and Partly Living

On December 29, 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in Canterbury by knights acting on behalf of King Henry, his former friend. The great poet T.S. Eliot memorialized this event in Murder in the Cathedral. In a previous post, we journeyed with T.S. Eliot into the human heart of Thomas Becket as he came to grips with his imminent death. But Becket’s heart was not the only one impacted by the event. Even more fascinating is the transformation that takes place in the peasant women of Canterbury. Throughout the play, they sing as the Chorus. As the plot unfolds, we witness the conversion of their hearts. Initially, they angrily oppose Becket’s return to England and the inevitable conflict that he brings. Eventually, they surrender themselves to the event, asking Thomas to pray for them and promising to pray for him.

There is a recurring refrain in their singing: “Living and partly living.” It describes their pitiful existence as they scrape by in poverty. They go on surviving, resentful of their misery. But at least the misery is manageable and predictable. It is what they know. By contrast, they are overwhelmed and terrified by the winds of change that propel the sails of Becket’s boat as he lands in Dover. Like most of us, they would so much rather stay mired in the hellhole that they know than venture out into new and scary horizons.

They beg and plead with Becket:

O Thomas, return, Archbishop; return, return to France.
Return. Quickly. Quietly. Leave us to perish in quiet…
We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.

They describe years of plenty and years of famine; birth and death; joy and fears. Like typical humans, they tend to deny and minimize just how awful things are. They hint at dreadful realities that they regularly endure – their daughters taken by the wealthy and powerful, untimely deaths, oppression, and violence. Somehow these painful parts of life seem “okay” or manageable in comparison with a new beginning of an unknown future.

As the old saying goes, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Rather than face our pain, rather than resolving conflict, rather than humbling ourselves and asking for assistance, we are much more likely to tell lies to ourselves and deny that change is needed. We choose surviving over thriving. Living and partly living.

Or we minimize. Personally, I’ve always had a passionate commitment to Truth and Goodness and Beauty. When those realities hit me between the eyes,  I realize that I can no longer live in denial. But oh, have I been a master of minimizing! For years, I carried painful and unhealed wounds that needed attention from God and others. I acknowledged them as best I knew how. But I shaded the truth. I told myself that it wasn’t all that bad, that other people had it so much worse, that I should be grateful for what I have, and so forth. I was surviving, not thriving. Living and partly living.

Back to T.S. Eliot. As Thomas faces his spiritual battle with the final tempter, the women of Canterbury chime in. They begin shedding their denial, admitting a bit more of the truth:

We have not been happy, my Lord, we have not been too happy.
We are not ignorant women, we know what we must expect and not expect.
We know of oppression and torture,
We know of extortion and violence,
Destitution, disease…
Our sins made heavier upon us.
We have seen the young man mutilated,
The torn girl trembling by the mill-stream.
And meanwhile we have gone on living,
Living and partly living…

As they begin facing the pain, they feel a clutching panic gripping their hearts:

God gave us always some reason, some hope; but now a new terror has soiled us, which none can avert, none can avoid, flowing under our feet and over the sky;
Under doors and down chimneys, flowing in at the ear and the mouth and the eye.
God is leaving us, God is leaving us, more pang, more pain than birth or death…
O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved;
Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.

It is one of the oldest human stories. We recognize the need for change. We begin to accept it. Perhaps we even make a firm resolve and take some serious first steps. Then, as the familiar fades from view, we panic. We become dizzy and disoriented. We feel a fear as of death. All too often, we scurry back to our hellhole. The battered woman returns to her abuser. The addict resumes his familiar rituals, and finds himself “surprised” to be acting out, yet again.

In this case, the women of Canterbury persevere. When December 29 arrives, they choose to be courageous. Even though they feel enormous fear and dread; even though they are yet quite feeble and imperfect, they give their consent:

I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened…
I have smelt them, the death-bringers; now is too late
For action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented…
O Lord Archbishop, O Thomas Archbishop, forgive us, forgive us, pray for us that we may pray for you, out of our shame.

Thomas enters the scene and affirms them:

Peace, and be at peace with your thoughts and visions.
These things had to come to you and you to accept them.
This is your share of the eternal burden…
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Indeed. Truth and Goodness and Beauty transcend us. We receive them and are received into them as we are capable. It is a slow and sometimes painful journey of conversion and growth. It is okay that we stumble and struggle so much along the way. God understands, and so do our true friends.

The play concludes. Thomas is savagely murdered, just as he and the women foresaw. They have already asked pardon of Thomas. Now they ask pardon of God. They are finally ready to confess truthfully their greatest sin – fearing the fullness of God’s love, and protecting themselves against receiving God’s blessing.

Forgive us, O Lord…
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.

God only wants to bless us. We are his dear and precious children. Any changes he asks of us, any sacrifices, any sufferings are only for the sake of stretching us, enlarging our capacity, and then filling us superabundantly with his love. We, like the women of Canterbury, cannot bear very much reality. Hopefully we will consent to put to death our old ways, to leave them behind, and to fare forward (to borrow words from another T.S. Eliot poem). Yes, we will feel fear, and probably all sorts of other emotions: shame, guilt, anger, sadness, or loneliness. Still, we can fare forward. With the support and encouragement of God and others, little by little, we can learn to leave behind our self-protective hellhole and step out into the light of God’s love, receiving grace upon grace.

The Lost Coin – Wisdom from Gregory of Nyssa

You are a beloved child of God. He made you good and beautiful, in his own image and likeness. You are cherished by him, chosen by him, and precious to him. He desires your heart and longs for you to be intimately close to him. He doesn’t want your achievements and accomplishments; he wants you – all of you. His greatest joy, shared by the angels and saints in heaven, is when you turn to him with all your heart and receive his total and unconditional Fatherly love for you.

If you are like me, you know those truths on an intellectual and theological level, but struggle to believe them and receive them with all your heart. In our more reflective moments, we painfully realize the magnitude of our sinful choices. We have damaged our relationships with God and others and self. We have become lost. There is, in the end, no denying that painful truth.

In the menacing shadow of our sinfulness, we fear that we are no longer lovable. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we hide from love and protect ourselves. We minimize our struggle and our pain in the presence of others and of God. In resisting vulnerability, we “safely” block out the love that is being freely offered to us. Then we end up feeling even more alone and unloved, and the cycle of sin begins anew. In the depths of our heart we yearn to be loved for who we are, but in our fear of rejection we dare not dream that dream.

In the 300’s, Saint Gregory of Nyssa offered a profound reflection on the parable of the Lost Coin in Luke 15. Gregory has to be one of the most overlooked and underappreciated Christian authors of all time. He was an intellectual giant in the fields of philosophy and theology. In an age that was much confused about the Trinity, he offered keen insight into how it is possible for God to be an eternal communion of love, three persons yet truly one God. Others were thinking in terms of separate substances; he was thinking in terms of relationship and an eternal communion of love. He “got it” about God.

He also really “got” the full truth of what it means to be human beings made in God’s image. He takes sin quite seriously, yet views our sinfulness as our condition. It is not who we are. It is not our identity. In our brokenness and distress, we tend to identify ourselves with our sins – but that is not how God sees us. We remain his precious children. The divine likeness that we bear is smeared and soiled, buried and hidden – yet remains what it always was. We are always God’s precious children.

That is where the image of the Lost Coin comes in. We are made in the likeness of God. Just as a coin is stamped with the image of the emperor or king, so are we stamped with God’s own likeness. Just as a coin is made from precious metal, so are we made “very good” in God’s design.

He entrusts us with a universe that is resplendent with truth and goodness and beauty. And we soil and tarnish it. By our own free choices, we choose lesser goods rather than real relationships, and we sully ourselves.

Yes, the shiny coin held proudly in God’s hands chooses to slip out and dive deeply into the muck. In its outward filth and stench, the coin becomes lost and barely recognizable for what it is. Yet inside it remains what it always was. In the words of Jesus, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).

Without the grace of Jesus, we cannot recover that lost coin, that inner goodness and truth and beauty that is yet within us. Like the woman in the parable, we can find other coins. We can do good and grow in virtues. We can achieve and accomplish and serve. But, unaided by grace and faith, that one coin will always elude us. Only when we light the lamp of faith and call on the aid of Jesus can we find that lost coin.

Even though sin is secondary, its effects are very real. We will need the purifying grace to Jesus to cleanse the mire and filth that has covered over the coin. It can be quite painful to be vulnerable and surrender ourselves to that purification and cleansing. But then the inner beauty of the coin – always there and never really lost – shines forth once again. At its core it remains the precious metal that it always was. It has lost none of its true worth. It still bears the mark of the King of Kings.

As Luke tells us, the angels and saints are eagerly cheering us on. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over all the others who (think they) have no need of repentance. The citizens of heaven yearn for those moments when the light of Christ breaks through, when we “come to our senses” like the prodigal son and surrender ourselves to our Father’s love. They erupt into joyful cheers when we once again believe the full truth about ourselves – that we are precious and beloved children of God, who belong in the house of our Father. Then the healing grace of Christ restores us, and his glory shines forth for all to see.

 

(For those wanting to read more, Gregory’s reflection on the Lost Coin is found in Chapter 12 of his work On Virginity)

Abiding in Love and Truth – First Post

Love is the true purpose of our human existence. Love is our origin and our destiny. Love is what nurtures us. Love is our deepest desire. Love is what sustains us along the arduous path. In love we grow; in love we are perfected and become who we are. Those who experience authentic love experience an amazing and unshakable joy, even amidst the hardest circumstances. Those who experience a lack of love languish, even when others are eager to help and heal. Devoid of love, human existence becomes meaningless and miserable.

But what is love? That is the real question.

Many people across the spectrum would agree with the statements I just made about love. Whether male or female, young or old, believers or unbelievers, conservatives or liberals, most of the people that I meet would like their life to be about love. Even the most jaded or cynical, beneath their façade, are protecting a tender heart that desperately yearns for love but is too terrified to seek it.

If virtually everyone believes that human existence is supposed to be about love, why so much misery and brokenness? Why so much confusion and chaos? Why so much polarization and hatred? What has gone wrong with the world today?

We have forgotten the connection between love and truth. It is impossible to abide in love if we do not also abide in the truth. “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

We’ve all heard those famous words of the apostle Paul, repeated at so many weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated…” Perhaps we are so familiar and so sentimental in hearing the words that we tune out by the time he speaks that crucial phrase: Love rejoices in the truth.

Love and truth are inseparable. Love is only love if it is ordered to the truth. If we are living a lie, love will not last.

“What is truth?” The words of Pontius Pilate echo through the centuries. We live in an age of relativism. We delude ourselves with the notion that we can create our own truth. We think we can make life mean whatever we want it to mean. This was, in fact, the original diabolical temptation to the first humans: “You will be like gods…” (Genesis 3:5). Each of us faces that decision at each moment. Do I open my heart in receptivity to all that is true and good and beautiful? Or do I assert my own ego, grasping and seizing and controlling, creating my own version of reality?  Relativism has given so many people just the leeway they need to indulge selfish desires or avoid doing the difficult thing. Pope Benedict XVI aptly exposed it as the “Dictatorship of Relativism.”

Truth and goodness and beauty were once delighted in and pursued by the greatest human minds. Whether philosophers or poets, architects or astronomers, many of the intellectual giants of the ancient and medieval world yearned to give themselves over to the truth. The more they did so, the more they perceived a mystery that was beyond their own limited experience. They saw themselves as stewards, not masters of the mystery.

The truth is objective and transcendent. We do not “create” it, even though our human creativity may unleash a deeper experience of it. Rather, “conversion” is a much more suitable word. If our hearts are sincere and receptive, truth or goodness or beauty will sometimes break through like a shaft of light. We discover that our approach has been incorrect or incomplete. We let ourselves be changed.

Or perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we harden our heart and stay the same. That is where misery and chaos and destruction enter into the human story.

Relativism is a threat to the truth, which means that it is ultimately a threat to love and to human flourishing. In this blog I will call upon my expertise in philosophy and theology to reaffirm objective truth.

However, I will also talk extensively about the subjective dimension of truth. Knowing the truth is one thing; internalizing it is another! Most of us can relate painfully to the experience of Paul: “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19). Like him, we have much need of the healing and integrity that Jesus Christ brings.

The truth is not relative, but it most certainly is relational. Love and truth are inseparable. God is love, i.e., God is an eternal communion of persons in relationship. We have been created in God’s image and likeness. We are destined to see God face to face and become like him. Therefore, we will only discover the full truth of our human existence in healthy relationships with God, self, and others.

Like so many today, I have experienced a great deal of brokenness in my own heart. My intellectual and spiritual beliefs have not always matched up with my emotional or physical experiences. I have received much healing in Christ. With help from some great friends, he is teaching me how to abide in love and truth. Therefore this blog will also share personal lessons learned.

Abiding in Love and Truth. That is what each of us truly desires. It is the exhortation that Jesus offered us the night before he died. He proclaimed himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. And he called us to abide in his love as branches on the vine, bearing fruit together in him.

I look forward to sharing more soon.