If five persons gather during a grief support session, how many persons are sitting around the table? I have the privilege of leading grief support groups for nine weekly sessions. On the last day participants seem reluctant to leave. They feel it had been good to be together in a circle of acceptance and understanding. Each one felt loved, an occurrence that Frederick Buechner calls “this ancient and most holy miracle.” Over the weeks miracles of healing gradually surfaced, hesitant individuals became a community, pain became less poignant for oneself and more open to the pain of others. When speaking of loved ones, were these deceased spouses and parents and siblings present? As we walked out on the last day, there was something more than five grieving persons and a completed workbook. How many persons were really present? As Frederick Buechner writes, “A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is where one plus one equals a thousand.”
I’ve heard retired persons say that when they wake up, they wonder what day it is. They’ve lost the Monday through Friday routine when it makes a great deal of difference whether the coffee maker is plugged in and the trash sits on the curb. Each day of the seven-day week is significant and as insignificant as the day before. Frederick Buechner in The Alphabet of Grace writes, “It is an insignificant, humdrum kind of day with no particular agenda, nothing special to do or think or be in it. It is an any-day kind of day with little to distinguish it from either yesterday or tomorrow. You wake up, which is to say you pick up the threads again of your life. For one more day the world is yours. You are your own to name” (page 33).
Today as we pick up the threads of our lives, how will we weave them? It is very seldom that I have no “have to” event in my day. When those rare days occur, I feel disjointed, tendons not holding me together. Without urgency or requirement, I should be happy to have choices. Shall I read, exercise, clean, organize, work ahead? No matter what I choose, it feels as if I’ve picked up the wrong threads. Buechner may have the answer: “It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again. Be alive if you can all through this day today of your life. What’s to be done? What’s to be done? Follow your feet. Put on the coffee. . . . Live in the needs of the day” (page 40).
Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, said, “We do not have to be saviours of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.” As church attendance shrinks, there is something we can do: invite one person at a time. Raise up in one soul a desire to worship, to serve, to form bonds. Then do the same tomorrow.
While I put effort into staying focused on the Mass, the effort escapes into a menagerie of thoughts: solving problems, outlining my day, and smiling at the baby in the next pew, Realizing I have no attention on the Mystery before me, I focus again only to become distracted the next second. Etty Hillesum claims that a quiet hour isn’t simple: “A lot of unimportant inner littler and bits and pieces have to be swept out first. Even a small head can be piled high inside with irrelevant distractions.” As Hillesum writes about her desire for “a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view so that something of ‘God’ can enter you, and something of ‘love,’ too,” it seems appropriate that the title of her autobiography is An Interrupted Life.
Imagine driving between two walls of fire, almost impenetrable smoke hiding the road whose destination is far from certain. Engulfed in fear and impending disaster, how does one function? Watching the California fires and hearing of their ferocity, I think of these persons whose terror is beyond my imagining. Henri Nouwen writes, “As we feel the pain of our own losses, our grieving hearts open our inner eye to a world in which losses are suffered far beyond our own little world of family, friends, and colleagues.” In the face of others’ greater suffering, how can we bemoan a flat tire, a lost contest, a failed exam, a burnt dinner? Perhaps we should feel blessed to have such small things to bear.
Parker J. Palmer wrote: “The marvelous thing about learning from a story is that a story never ends, so our learning from it need not end either.” Whether the story’s last line is “And they lived happily ever after” or the main character rides off into the sunset, stories live on inside me. No day is complete without my reading America magazine or a historical novel or a spiritual book. The next day I wonder how the historical characters are doing, as if they’re still churning butter or outsmarting the Gestapo. The features in America become conversation starters at dinner. A spiritual book may create an openness in me for the next day’s lectionary readings. Like yeast in dough the lessons ferment in me.
Having just finished The Promise of Dawn by Lauraine Snelling, I have learned about sticking up for myself as Signe did, about growing in affection and respect as her husband Rune did, about the ability to soften hardened hearts as two families, one kind and dependent, the other demanding and cruel, shared one roof.
As Macrina Wiederkehr suggests, “Read with a vulnerable heart. Expect to be blessed in the reading,” and the learning will not end.