On the eve of the Epiphany, I traveled to Orlando, Fla., to take part in a gathering titled Weathering the Storms, which had been designed for bishops, diocesan staff, clergy and members of their families from the dioceses most directly affected by the devastating storms at the end of last summer, particularly from the dioceses of Louisiana, Mississippi and Western Louisiana. The conference was organized through a collaborative partnership of the Church Pension Group, CREDO Institute, Episcopal Relief and Development, the Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies and the Presiding Bishop’s Office.
Dedicated faculty and staff, including health professionals, had come from around the church to make themselves available for workshops and consultations. The purpose of the gathering was to offer respite, refreshment and skills to those who have been trying to minister to others while they themselves have to deal with their own experiences of disorientation and loss. Their faithfulness and endurance under the most difficult circumstances, and with the future still uncertain, touched me deeply.
In an early session, it became apparent that one of the real gifts of the gathering was the opportunity for those who are going through so much to tell their stories. This is not surprising. The need to give expression to the pain and sense of desolation, not to mention anger, that such devastating events cause us is essential if we are to find our way out of darkness and move toward the light.
The time in Orlando reminded me of St. Paul’s declaration that we must bear one another’s burdens, and in this way we fulfill the law of Christ. Bearing one another’s burdens often means close attention to one another’s stories of pain and loss along with an encouragement to share even those things that are almost too painful to say.
The authors of the Psalms were not reluctant to express pain and desolation in the form of lament. Giving voice to the deepest human emotions of grief and loss is part of the warp and woof of the psalter.
Let my prayer enter into your presence; incline your ear to my lamentation. For I am full of trouble; my life is at the brink of the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I have become like one who has no strength.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?
I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.
I have come into deep waters, and the torrent washes over me.
I have grown weary with my crying; my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed for looking for my God.
We also hear the voice of exiles crying out with a profound sense of loss, alienation and uprootedness. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. Such cries of anguish are in fact cries of deep faith. “You cannot draw close to God,” St. Augustine of Hippo once observed, “when you are far from your own self.”
When we try to distance our selves from our suffering or to avoid the pain of being where we most truly are, we distance ourselves from the one who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. However, when we find ourselves in a place of suffering and are able to acknowledge the depth of the pain we bear, we draw closer to God.
The courageous willingness to name what has happened to us and where we actually are, as painful as it may be to do so, opens the way for God to draw near and accompany us. Christ is present with us in our wounds, not as rescuer, but as a companion who himself knows the fullness of bearing human pain and loss.
The late Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé, once remarked that Christ is most truly present in our wounds. I do not believe he was speaking of physical wounds but about those deep wounds of the spirit that many of us carry while appearing externally to be whole and well.
One of the paradoxes of naming our woundedness and acknowledging our pain is that in so doing we frequently find we have been given the strength to endure. The reality of what we are bearing and its severity is in no way lessened. Yet something one might call a quiet confidence seems to emerge and carry us forward. Such I believe is the grace of God’s companioning presence.
On the road to Emmaus, the risen Christ obliged two desolate disciples by giving voice to their pain. In so doing, he opened the way for them to experience his presence in the opening of Scripture and the breaking of the bread.
Christ continues to walk beside us in our times of darkness and loss, inviting us to share openly and honestly what burdens our spirits. In so doing, he draws us toward the light – that is, into ever-deeper companionship with himself -- and seeks to make his courage and his deathless hope our own.