In Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott quotes Lenny Bruce: “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
My respect for Anne Lamott was enormous before I started this Lenten blog, and now it’s pretty much expanded to such a measure that no word feels big enough, like numbers and the federal debt. It’s HARD to write about spiritual issues, especially once you get past the easy-to-say stuff that is really more like “spirituality lite:” having compassion, being nice to others, and generally making an effort to be a good person.
On Holy (or Maundy) Thursday, it feels intimidating and presumptuous to attempt to speak to or about a sacred observance of suffering, mourning and grief. But it also feels like an obligation—if we are to share in the celebration of Easter, or in any kind of resurrection, we can’t ignore the dying that has gone before.
The most powerful and useful poem I know about grief and transformation is called “Pushing Through,” by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). It is the poem that has taught me the most about the experience of suffering, and especially about our relationship to the divine in the experience of suffering.
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief–
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in: then your great transforming
will happen to me, and my great grief cry will happen to you.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Here are some things it’s useful to notice in this poem:
1) It’s experiential—he’s not just describing pushing through solid rock; it feels like he is pushing through solid rock. There’s nothing to see in the poem, no images, no textures, nothing to hear—all you know is the rock. How many times have you felt like this: “I am such a long way in I see no way though, and no space? Everything is close to my face, and everything close to my face is stone?” The suffering is all there is, and it’s heavy, cold and unmovable. Good, life-saving poems do this—they don’t make you feel like you are watching the experience, they make you feel like you are having the experience. And they don’t apologize for it because they know it’s the truth.
2) He is crying out to something greater than himself, a “master” who has the power to break through the grief or suffering that a single human being cannot break through. And he’s not doing it in a wimpy way—he’s demanding it. He’s demanding that God do her/his job and be God: “You be the master, make yourself fierce, break in.” He’s insisting on it.
3) The last two lines are the most extraordinary of the entire poem: “then your great transforming will happen to me, and my great grief cry will happen to you.”
What’s extraordinary is the absolute insistence on a relationship with the divine, a reciprocity. It’s not just about being in pain and needing help. It’s not just about being a fragile, weak, suffering human and calling out to an all-powerful God. It’s about knowing that even in the blindest, most painful, most helpless moments, we have something to give, and that something has value. When all you have to give is grief, then that is what you give.
This poem elevates human suffering to an experience that does not make it desirable, but does make it more bearable, and, as weird as this sounds, more noble. If you can offer your pain to God and demand that S/he not only see you but BE TOUCHED BY you, then you are reminding yourself that humanity is powerful, noble and vibrant, even in its suffering.
I once used this poem in a workshop I did for health-care professionals, most of them nurses who did some of the hardest work imaginable—pediatric oncology and hospice, for example. We had been working together for about 5 hours when I introduced this poem, and I knew it was going to be hard because it’s not exactly a cheery piece. But I felt that we should press on, because people who deal with grief and pain all the time need the compassion, honesty and validation that this poem offers.
It was hard. There was some resistance at first and some tears. But in the end there was a quiet transformation—we reminded each other that when what you have is grief, then grief is what you give, and that is valuable. One nurse said, “People always ask me how I can do this kind of work and I say to them, ‘How can I not?'”
Exactly. And thank God that you do.
Sometimes we may wonder how we can bear the kind of suffering that being alive entails.
How can we not?