Tag Archives: grief

September 11: Do not be afraid of them.

This is part of a post in a series by Sister Johanna Caton that we read back in March. Search Agnellus Mirror for People in their thousands or follow this link to read the whole post and access the series. This is apposite for our series on preventing suicide, but also appropriate for today’s date.

To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (cf. Lk 12:4).

Jesus’ words here are bold words. I imagined myself there, at the scene, part of that huge crowd of thousands. I am hungry for Jesus’ truth. How would I have reacted to his words? Sure, I would have liked well enough being included among those whom Jesus calls his ‘friends’. But I must confess that I would also have felt a subtle resistance to the rest of that sentence, I think. He says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but after that can do no more. I don’t think I would have wanted to hear about killing and being killed.

But Jesus, in this passage, is determined to challenge us, and to make his audience face the deepest of mysteries. He is going straight for what we most fear, straight for the most horrific thing we can imagine: our death. The very subject of death touches the rawest of raw nerves. In the face of death, if we are honest about our feelings, our sense of bewilderment, horror, loss, grief, disorientation, fear and even injustice and outrage surfaces – usually overwhelmingly. And this is the subject Jesus raises. Then, with simplicity, and without a hint of melodrama, he says that we have no reason to fear death, or to fear those who, out of malice, may cause our death. Recall: there are thousands listening to this speech. He wants everybody to know.

Why is Jesus talking about death? It now comes home to me that he does this because he alone, as Son of the Living God, is the only human being – ever – with authoritative knowledge of death. His teaching about death, therefore, is an integral part of his mission – it is his mission. It is even the Good News!

+++++++++

We must not be afraid of those who kill the body, even if it is their own body they kill. That lack of fear, or that overcoming of fear, enables ordinary people to intervene, as Samaritans, as trained suicide watch workers, or just good neighbours.

Let us pray for the grace to overcome the fear of death sufficiently to comfort the bereaved, and to notice and get alongside a potential suicide who may cross our path.

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9 September: Augustine and Anon on the Suicide of Judas

Tomorrow is World Suicide Prevention Day. Whenever I think about suicide, I have this image before my inward eye: the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, undoing the knot by which Judas hanged himself, ready to remove him from the influence of the mocking demons at Hell’s Gate. The Gospels tell us that Judas betrayed Jesus to the collaboration rulers of the Jewish people, which led to the crucifixion on Good Friday. Augustine says that Judas’ suicide did not wipe away his guilt for Jesus’ death but added another wrong to that overwhelming transgression. Yet there would still have been room for healing penitence if he had been open to it.

The anonymous mediaeval sculptor of Strasbourg Cathedral clearly believed that Judas was forgiven, even after his suicide; sometimes the artist can convey the message more clearly than the philosopher!

But here is Augustine*:

Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence?

How much more ought he to abstain from laying violent hands on himself who has done nothing worthy of such a punishment! For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime.

Why, then, should a man who has done no ill do ill to himself, and by killing himself kill the innocent?

We are still asking the same question today. Part of the answer is there in Matthew’s Gospel; Judas felt he was on his own and past redemption:

 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

Matthew 27:3-5

Judas was alone when he most needed a friend. The disciples were too immersed in their own grief to look out for him. The Councillors made it perfectly clear that Judas was no longer of use to them and dissociate themselves from him. With no-one at hand to help, he went away and hanged himself. Tomorrow we visit the Grief Project, aiming to strengthen and comfort those bereaved by suicide, and to prevent its occurring in the first place.

*City of God by Saint Augustine, Marcus Dods.

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13 July, Seeds III: first the shoot, then the ear …

Ears begining to appear on the maize crop.

Jesus also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come’.

(Mk 4:26-29, translation: The New Jerusalem Bible).


Maybe readers of these posts are wondering why I’ve taken such a round-about path to this beautiful parable of the seed growing by itself. It’s because as I pondered that parable this time it became for me like a vine with tendrils reaching in many directions. I found that it reaches back to that bad day Jesus had with the scribes and with his relatives (Mark 3:20-30). This parable has a powerful message for them – and for all those who have wilfully hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching. The passage about the seeds’ independent growth affirms, in the face of any suggestion to the contrary, that no amount of human – or demonic – obstruction will ultimately prevent the word of God from fulfilling its divine destiny in the wider world. God’s word will succeed, Jesus teaches in this parable. Oh, we remain free; there will be those who refuse to accept him, and he never uses force, but God’s word will ultimately achieve the end for which it entered the world in Jesus.


But there’s more. Not only does this parable reach back with a strong message for those who opposed Jesus. It also, as we said yesterday, reaches back to add a dimension to the passage from Mark 4: 1-9 about the different types of soil. Let’s think about that.


As I confessed in these posts, the parable of the different kinds of soil leaves me with an uneasy feeling. I am always reminded when I read it that I’m a flawed being, a sinner. I see again that as far as good soil is concerned, I am very a very patchy piece of earth, at best. Clearing out the stones and weeds and brambles will be a work in progress until I die. But, the good news is that I don’t think Jesus means the parable about the soil to be the last word on the subject of seeds and soil and the kingdom. It’s important to remember that no parable encompasses the mystery of the kingdom in its entirety. The different parables are like the different facets of a diamond, each one reflecting the light differently, each one contributing in a unique but partial way to the beauty of the whole. So, to my relief, I realise that the parable about the different kinds of soil actually needs the parable about the seed growing by itself in order to be understood.

And this makes me very happy. The parable about the seed growing by itself is a good one for times when we ourselves are feeling discouraged about our weaknesses and failures and sins. In this parable, the Lord is telling us that the kingdom is not about being perfect – about being good soil twenty-four/seven. In fact, it’s not all about us. It is about him, about his word. And secondly, it’s not about us achieving personal goodness all by ourselves for God, climbing to heaven by our own muscle and effort. Not at all. This parable is about the ‘muscle,’ the intrinsic power, the unstoppability of God’s word within us.

So, take heart. Take heart, too, if you are going through a period of deep loss and grief and it feels as though your heart has become completely barren. This parable is for you, too. The seed of the word has been scattered within you, and now it is doing what it does best: ‘night and day, while we sleep and while we are awake, the seed is sprouting and growing.’ You cannot see what the seed is doing below the surface of that bare, black soil, but Jesus assures us here that God’s life in us is progressing according to the creative and ever-active love of God. God’s seed is all-powerful and, as this parable suggests, not as fussy about soil as we might have feared. It will quietly get on with its growth – how, we do not know, says Jesus. And we don’t have to know. The parable promises, however, that there will come a time when we will discover the green shoots of the kingdom beginning to emerge from within our heart – a sign that even in our own seemingly barren and ever imperfect and weedy life, God’s seed will eventually produce ‘the full grain in the ear. And the harvest will come.’ This is reason to sing with gratitude. God’s life is in us. His seed is so powerful, so tenacious of life, so willing to be itself, so supremely able to be itself, that we needn’t worry.

We began this reflection by looking at some of Jesus’ own human difficulties: the misunderstanding of family and the intense hostility of the scribes. We had a glimpse into his humanity and saw him as a feeling being, searching for those who would sincerely respond to his loving teachings. We saw beautiful parables emerge from a man like us, with emotions capable of being hurt by rejection. And yet, he ends his teaching that day not with a message of despair, and certainly not of anger, but with a message of tenderness and profound encouragement for us. This is what Our Lord is like.

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14 November: Grief must be Digested, II

Elizabeth’s Rose

Here’s a story that follows on naturally from Dr Johnson’s wise words yesterday.

The first lady had just celebrated her birthday. ‘I always buy myself a present from my mother out of the money she left me when she died 14 years ago. This year I bought myself a red rose bush.’

Her friend’s reaction was quite different. ‘I can’t bear roses in the garden, they were my mother’s favourite flowers and I just can’t look at them now. And you remember that I gave you all my lilies of the valley for the same reason. Those pretty little bells and the gorgeous scent. It was too much for me. But they are creeping back in the corner by the shed. I don’t like to think of ripping them out again.’

The rose shown here has a story of grief and remembrance, which you can find here. You can find Elizabeth’s rose next to Saint Mildred’s church in Canterbury.

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13 November: Grief must be digested: I


While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till grief be digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it.

From Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780″ by James Boswell.

It can be difficult to get alongside someone grieving. We want to take the pain away, but our attempts at comfort are rejected, quite possibly irritably. Johnson lost his wife young and never remarried; she had been the love of his life. Although he was a thoughtful, believing Christian, he was acutely aware of his own sinfulness, and had to make an effort to accept that God’s forgiveness was indeed extended to himself. He was melancholic and understood all too well how well-meant kind words can sound like hollow platitudes.

Waiting till grief is digested does not mean shunning a bereaved relative or friend, but something like a waiter in a restaurant: attentive waiting, not fussing. A hard role sometimes.

WT

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3 December: Preoccupied by good.

James Boswell published this letter from Samuel Johnson after the Doctor died. Both men had melancholy times; Johnson more severely than most.

“I never was so much pleased as now with your account of yourself; and sincerely hope, that between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures, neither melancholy nor caprice will find any place for entrance. Whatever philosophy may determine of material nature, it is certainly true of intellectual nature, that it abhors a vacuum: our minds cannot be empty; and evil will break in upon them, if they are not pre-occupied by good.

My dear Sir, mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian. After this, ‘tristitiam et metus Trades protervis in mare Creticum Portare ventis.’*

‘If we perform our duty, we shall be safe and steady.

Life of Johnson by James Boswell.

Jesus put it this way:

And when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation.

Luke 12: 43-45.

Be preoccupied by good’ sounds like a good Advent motto to me! Spelt out for Boswell quite clearly: mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian.


*While in the Muse’s friendship blest,
Nor fear, nor grief, shall break my rest;
Bear them, ye vagrant winds, away,
And drown them in the Cretan Sea.’
Horace, Odes, i. 26. I.

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25 November: Taken by Surprise, I.

Sister Johanna is back! With Advent just around the corner, we find Jesus and the disciples looking for peace and quiet to absorb the news about the prophet of Advent, John the Baptist.

Jesus and the disciples withdrew by boat to a lonely place…. But the crowds heard and went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick (Mt.14:13f.).

Jesus and the disciples are taken by surprise here – several surprises. The first surprise is a shattering piece of news: they had just heard of the death of John the Baptist – that’s why they wanted to go off by themselves. It’s easy to forget that Jesus and his disciples were like us, and the death of Jesus’ cousin John, who had been a profound spiritual force in their lives, was as traumatic for them as such a thing would be to us. Jesus knew that they all needed some space in order to come to terms with their grief – to some extent anyway. So Jesus organises a boat, and they go by sea to what they hoped would be a place of solitude. They needed to talk about John together, to weep, to pray.

But no solitude was given. Second surprise: a large crowd met them as they got out of the boat. Jesus was grief-stricken, but he saw the faith-filled, needy crowd, and was filled with pity. It’s possible, in fact, that their great faith strengthened Jesus, and enabled him to heal their sick. As I read this, however, I found myself thinking about the disciples, rather than the miraculous healing of the crowd. The disciples don’t seem able to draw energy from the crowd. What happens to them? The text doesn’t say, but during the time when Jesus is healing the crowd, the disciples seem to have disappeared. They are still overwhelmed by grief, surely; I imagine them creeping away, out of sight of all the people who are focused on Jesus. They try to watch the action from a safe distance maybe. As I read on, I realise that Jesus also remembers his disciples, even while he is taken up with the needs of the crowd. He knows that his sorrowing disciples need healing, too.

At length, a further situation develops. Evening comes. Those whom Jesus had healed need to eat. The disciples materialise now, finally, and suggest that Jesus draw the event to a close so that they can all find some food somewhere. Jesus has a different idea. ‘There is no need for the people to go,’ Jesus tells the disciples. ‘Give them something to eat yourselves.’ They must have groaned inwardly at Jesus’ words, and wondered what madness had possessed him. They only had the provisions they had brought with them: five loaves and two fish – barely enough for their own meal. There are over five thousand people to feed. Jesus, always good at registering unspoken words, reads the disciples’ stunned and tired faces and doesn’t even try to dialogue further with them, in Matthew’s account. Jesus simply tells the disciples to bring him their food. Jesus himself instructs the people to sit down on the grass. Then, quietly blessing the food and breaking the five loaves, he gives the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute to the five-thousand-plus people. We know how this story ends. Everybody eats – and well. Third surprise for them.

Why does Jesus do this? The people could probably have managed to get home without expiring, picking up some food as they went through different villages on the way. This miracle of feeding doesn’t seem to be one that addressed a desperate need, as did the physical healings Jesus had performed for them earlier in that day. But Jesus has a message here. He seems to be saying: “I do not fulfil only the minimum requirements of a needy situation, and I do not address only the most obvious and most desperate troubles of my people. I am willing to do more – so much more than you have asked or think you need. Or rather, I show you that you need more than you think. The healing that you sought from me is not complete without the food that I alone can give you.” That was perhaps Jesus’ primary message, and it was addressed both to the crowd and to the disciples. And now to us. But something more was involved here for the disciples. I would like to explore this tomorrow in a second reflection on this story.

SJC

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25 September: Letter upon a mournful occasion.

Doctor Johnson

A letter from Doctor Johnson to a friend and publisher of his work, sent on this day, September 25, 1750.

To Mr. JAMES ELPHINSTON.

DEAR SIR,

You have, as I find by every kind of evidence, lost an excellent mother; and I hope you will not think me incapable of partaking of your grief. I read the letters in which you relate your mother’s death to Mrs. Strahan, and think I do myself honour, when I tell you that I read them with tears; but tears are neither to you nor to me of any further use, when once the tribute of nature has been paid. The business of life summons us away from useless grief, and calls us to the exercise of those virtues of which we are lamenting our deprivation. The greatest benefit which one friend can confer upon another, is to guard, and excite, and elevate his virtues. This your mother will still perform, if you diligently preserve the memory of her life, and of her death: a life, so far as I can learn, useful, wise, and innocent; and a death resigned, peaceful, and holy.

I cannot forbear to mention, that neither reason nor revelation denies you to hope, that you may increase her happiness by obeying her precepts; and that she may, in her present state, look with pleasure upon every act of virtue to which her instructions or example have contributed. Whether this be more than a pleasing dream, or a just opinion of separate spirits, is, indeed, of no great importance to us, when we consider ourselves as acting under the eye of GOD: yet, surely, there is something pleasing in the belief, that our separation from those whom we love is merely corporeal; and it may be a great incitement to virtuous friendship, if it can be made probable, that that union that has received the divine approbation shall continue to eternity.

There is one expedient by which you may, in some degree, continue her presence. If you write down minutely what you remember of her from your earliest years, you will read it with great pleasure, and receive from it many hints of soothing recollection, when time shall remove her yet farther from you, and your grief shall be matured to veneration. To this, however painful for the present, I cannot but advise you, as to a source of comfort and satisfaction in the time to come; for all comfort and all satisfaction is sincerely wished you by, dear Sir, ‘Your most obliged, most obedient, ‘And most humble servant, ‘SAM. JOHNSON.

from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell, available on-line and on Kindle.

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12 August, Readings from Mary Webb XXIV: The Spirit of the Earth.

IMGP4576

 

Love me–and I will give into your hands
The rare, enamelled jewels of my lands,
Flowers red and blue,
Tender with air and dew.

From far green armouries of pools and meres
I’ll reach for you my lucent sheaves of spears–
The singing falls,
Where the lone ousel calls.

When, like a passing light upon the sea,
Your wood-bird soul shall clap her wings and flee,
She shall but nest
More closely in my breast.

speedwell

Jewells: ragged robin and speedwell.

 

Is it a pagan superstition to talk about the spirit of the earth, or to imagine that spirit speaking? We are made of atoms and hormones and genes and bones – remember that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

So get to know and love ‘Mother’ Earth: not just the dust and flowers but the wisdom that has been there since the beginning, sustaining it.  The Spirit of the Earth can be identified with Wisdom, sitting at the Creator’s side as he set about his work. Laudato Si!

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing, from the beginning.  I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived. neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out: The mountains with their huge bulk had not as yet been established: before the hills I was brought forth: He had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of the world.  When he prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law and compass he enclosed the depths: When he established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters:When he compassed the sea with its bounds, and set a law to the waters that they should not pass their limits: when be balanced the foundations of the earth;  I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men. 

Proverbs 8:22-31.

 

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23 March. Before the Cross X: Christ crucified welcomes us.

 

 
christ acc2

As a teenager I visited the resort of Tignes in France on a family skiing holiday. On our way through the French Alps from the airport, our coach crossed a dam, and we could see a large reservoir stretching up the valley to our left. Our ski rep began to tell us a story. There had been a village known as Tignes, which had been flooded and destroyed with the creation of the reservoir in 1952, and its people had been relocated to a newly built village, Tignes Les Boisses. The church there, l’église Saint Jacques de Tarentaise, had been built to a design similar to that in “Old Tignes”. All this is verifiable history. The road wound uphill, away from the dam, and we entered the purpose-built village.

Our rep related how an elderly couple, objecting to the flooding of their valley, and ignoring all the remonstrances of the EDF and local authority negotiators, had refused steadfastly to leave their home. They had drowned as the waters rose to form the new reservoir. He told us to look to our right as we drove past the church, and to notice the crucifix in front of it. The arms of Jesus had originally been nailed to the crossbeam, he said, but over the years they had dropped down to their present position, as though Jesus himself were pleading on behalf of the drowned couple. There was no scientific explanation for this extraordinary phenomenon (great solemnity and wonderment in his voice at this point); not even in the natural warping properties of wood.

The image of this cross has remained with me through my adult life, and I have retold the story of it more than once, and with equal solemnity. But I recently discovered that it wasn’t true at all. At least, I have found no evidence that the elderly couple ever existed. The crucifix itself was crafted by Jean Touret for the new church, with the arms of Jesus extended downwards in an expression of grief for the loss of the old village. It was also to represent Jesus’s welcome of visitors. He named the work ” le Christ Accueillant ” – The Welcoming Christ.

I would rather our ski rep had told us the truth surrounding this remarkable crucifix. Perhaps he believed his story. Or perhaps venturing into the “religious” subject of Christ’s welcome made him feel uncomfortable. As in so many movies, here was an invented tale designed to make is feel indignant towards big-business callousness and government collusion. And our sense of moral outrage is validated by the direct involvement of God himself. No harm in that, surely?

Jean Touret had wanted to honour a community genuinely affected by trauma and loss. His purpose had not been to elicit indignation, but to recognise that Christ stands with the broken and dispossessed. And nobody is honoured by fabricated miracle stories, least of all Jesus. The Hollywood approach fundamentally misreads what is meant in the gospels by the Kingdom of God. It would direct our disdain towards world powers and social injustices over which we have very little control. It would have us “rage against the machine” much like the zealots in Jesus’s own day.

To the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” GK Chesterton’s famous answer was “I am”. The challenge of the gospel is to grasp our own need for a saviour, and in love (rather than self-righteous indignation), to consider the world’s need for a saviour too. “Le Christ Accueillant” does indeed signify a miracle: that Jesus welcomes us today into the presence of the Loving Father. Not from the cross, but as a resurrected, living Saviour, whose brutal crucifixion made our rescue and welcome possible.

Rupert Greville

   Thank you, Rupert, for another thought-provoking image and prayerful reflection. WT.

The story of the Church and Image 1:

Image 2:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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