Sacred Ground: The Place of Grief in the Spiritual Life
By The Rev. Tricia de Beer
Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan Catholic priest and theologian reflecting on the Rwandan genocide, said, “The resurrection of the church begins with lament.” There is an amazing transformation of the heart that can happen when we allow ourselves to feel the pain of what is lost.
What I have observed in the Sacred Ground courses I have facilitated with White people is how difficult it is for us to stay with or even to name the grief. There is a tendency to skip to a desire to “fix it,” and we jump immediately to what we can do. Or there can be another response that is just as unhelpful, and that is to cling to guilt and shame. I believe that guilt is a natural reaction when we see that we have hurt another. However, it is unhelpful to get stuck there, and ultimately it can keep us from responding to the need to challenge injustice and work for equity. It is crucial to allow ourselves simply to be in the pain and to do this in community before God so that we are transformed. This is the soul’s work in Sacred Ground.
Francis Weller, in his book “The Wild Edge of Sorrow,” said: “There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive. Grief is subversive, undermining our white society’s quiet agreement that we behave and stay in control of our emotions at all times. Our broken heart has the potential to open us to a wider sense of identity, one capable of seeing through the partitions that have segregated self and world.”
This is not easy, because everything in our Western culture teaches us that we should be happy—and if we are not, we are probably doing something wrong. The only time we allow grief is perhaps at a funeral. Even then, we laud those “who carried themselves so well,” which often means they did not cry! We have made grief a private thing we do in a clinical setting. We are a culture that focuses on the future, and we don’t want to think much about the past.
Yet, as is expressed by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill in “Healing Our Broken Humanity,” “Scripture teaches us that we can’t move toward hope, peace, transformation, and reconciliation without going through sorrow, mourning, regret, and lament.” More than a third of the Psalms are laments, like Psalm 142: “I cry aloud to the Lord, I lift up my voice to the God of mercy…”
Weller says he believes that we need to undertake an “apprenticeship in sorrow”–to learn again the lost skills and ritual ways of holding our grief in the context of our community of faith. He is not suggesting that we fixate on grief, but that when it comes, we welcome it and give it the time and space it needs to be metabolized into our life.
My husband and I have come to see that sometimes what we are witnessing on TV news is so painful or outrageous it does violence to our souls if we simply turn off the TV and pretend we are not feeling a great weight on our hearts. We have learned to sometimes stop and pray together, chant, or go for a walk and talk about what we are feeling.
Grief, properly attended to, both acknowledges what has been lost and ensures that we won’t forget what must be remembered. As we grieve the atrocities inflicted on People of Color, and place ourselves in God’s presence, we open ourselves to the miracle of healing and the new life which is promised in our baptism.
*This piece is abridged from a longer version in the Sacred Ground curriculum.
Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash.
The Rev. Tricia de Beer is a retired Episcopal priest with a ministry focus on racial equity.