Thursday, June 4, 2009
This morning my three-year-old was crying about a helium balloon that he lost at the Memorial Day parade, and it crossed my mind to worry that he may have inherited from me a long memory for sorrow. I began to wonder what the uses of sorrow might be. Sorrow can be an effective teacher, but is rarely a compassionate one, and I can see in my own life how it can settle over you like a gossamer veil, subtly coloring everything you see and do.
While sorrow is a necessary ingredient in penitence, it must be tempered through long reflection into something else, even, perhaps, into its opposite. The desolation that God allows us to descend to gradually becomes filled in with other things. Even if we accept the proposition that time is non-linear -- a proposition which, if we believe in God, we are on some level required to accept -- and that thus all things, including the dreadful and the sorrowful, are happening now, we are not required to mourn forever. The Bible prescribes a period of mourning for the bereaved, staggered into three phases: seven days for what's known as shiva, followed by thirty days, and an additional eleven months if one is mourning a parent. But even David, when his first son with Bathsheba died, "arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the Lord, and worshipped," explaining, "While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again?" and soon after, conceived Solomon with his wife.
We cannot bring back the dead, including those who have died to us figuratively, and perhaps, when our prescribed period of mourning has passed, we are required to take up the hard work of our lives again in joy. We must drop everything, including sorrow, to imitate the kenosis of Christ and receive His sometimes strange and ineffable healing. The poet Jane Hirshfield writes, in a poem called "Late Prayer":
Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
a single nail, a single ruby
all the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.