A Faith That Makes Space for Mourning

Just this morning in church I was thinking about the Middle Ages, how their artwork was full of death, real death with grinning skulls and rotting flesh, and how this is considered the era in Western history when Christian belief was most alive and all-pervasive. How many of us who walked through the door this morning literally believe the words on the banner over our heads: “Christ is Risen”? Do I believe it? And by “literally” I mean “in a way that robs death of its power”. For me that also means “historically true”. For you it may not. But either way, that’s the job that “Christ is Risen” has to do.

I’m reading this absorbing, brilliant, painful novel called Swimming, by Nicola Keegan, which I found through this excerpt in Narrative Magazine. It’s about an Olympic gold medalist swimmer whose competitive drive is fundamentally an escape from her oppressive consciousness of death, triggered by family losses in her childhood and her mother’s subsequent spiral into housebound depression. Replace swimming with academic achievement and you have my life story. As I near the book’s end, I keep wondering why the heroine is proceeding down the very modern track of turning to therapy rather than religion when talent fails her and she has to face her long-buried feelings. Unlike my largely secular childhood, this fictional girl was immersed in Midwestern Catholic-school culture and has great respect and affection for the nuns who mentored her. Yet that framework proves powerless to help her or her family surmount their despair when confronted with mortality. Why?

Maybe it’s because modern Christianity doesn’t depict death enough. The church doesn’t spend enough time on the shadow side, allowing sorrow and pain to have their say, not prematurely silenced by happy endings. (If I ran the world, I’d have a second Lent halfway through Pentecost. Do we really need 29 weeks of ordinary time, people?) Those who are still angry and grieving may feel that the only way to validate their feelings is to reject the faith.

Later today I found some of these sentiments echoed in Robert Gross’s paranormal gay romance story “Dark Lapis“, published in the online journal Wilde Oats. Reiter’s Block readers may recall his poem “Poor Souls” reprinted here last month. The plague that passes through his fictional Renaissance city is reminiscent of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s-1990s, and the younger generation’s tendency to dismiss it as old history even though new infection rates remain high. It also reminded me of post-9/11 New York City and the shallow slogans (“Fight back! Go shopping!”) that were supposed to return a stricken populace to business as usual.

From “Dark Lapis”:

…The city was returning to its weddings and babies, lawsuits and public executions, and the anomalies were generally spoken of with a sigh, a shake of the head, a pious reference to the long-term costs of the pestilence, and an abrupt change of topic. But Magnus was drawn to anomalies. Though he would not admit it to anyone, he distrusted the return of the city to normalcy just as much as he was horrified by the return of spring. He preferred the fog, the darkness, the lapis lazuli ring on his finger. The incised griffin turned inward toward his palm, caressed with a thumb.

The cruel fact was Magnus missed the pestilence. He could scarcely contemplate the immensity of this truth to himself, nor could he communicate it to others. To think of it was like holding a hot poker to your flesh, but there it was-the truth-and it rarely left him. Not that he was anything like the mad monks who raved on the street corners at the height of the pestilence, relishing how the Scourge of God had smitten the sinners. Not that he wished another human soul a moment’s suffering. But he was not yet willing to put it out of his mind as the others seemed to have done, and he walked at night searching for proof that it had not yet lapsed completely into forgetfulness.

The city had marshaled its efforts behind recovery; religion had become reasonable, gentle, and omnipresent. Services were watercolor washes of music and flowers, and the ministers wore white as if they were officiating at weddings. The goal, their flock had been admonished, had been to persevere and in time forget the bad memories and continue with only the good. As if, Magnus thought, the horror were the flesh, the final memory the skeleton, and time were decomposition. He found this offensive. How could he ever forget the worst that had happened? The boils. The vomiting. Fever and ravings. The remedies as violent as the pestilence, which never worked for long if at all. Later he found it loathsome. What good was memory that was so skittish and indulgent, so afraid of pain that it locked the door and boarded it over?

Those days had been a light so unspeakably brilliant you could neither open your eyes to it nor close your eyes tightly enough to keep it out. Even with your eyes shut you were blinded by it. It was so intense that only in retrospect could you take in its excruciating vibrancy. The change, the loss, the revelation; the multiple obliterations of them, of everything. The vividness of one minute corner of existence until it threatened to set you and the whole universe ablaze or tear you open like a knife ripping through canvas. And now nothing had that. Not even the spring blossoms could match it.

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