Last night while my husband placed ashes on my forehead and the forehead of our 11-year old son and we contemplated our mortality, I cried. Someone once told my husband when our son was very tiny that it was cute when he placed ashes on his little forehead. My husband realized that they didn’t understand what was happening—those ashes meant that we acknowledged that our baby is going to die. “From dust you were made, to dust you shall return.” I suffer through the thought of my child’s death more than contemplating my own death each Ash Wednesday.
This year the tragedy was stark. As we applied our symbolic ashes, other parents were experiencing the all-too-real mortality of their own children at yet another school shooting in our country. Tuesday night, I worked with children at a middle school where one of their own was shot while attending a family funeral for a young man killed in a police shooting. Children across the country have been dying in record numbers from the flu. And that’s just the ones that make the news.
I know there is death, God, but there is something incomprehensible about the loss of our children.
My son had meningitis at three weeks old. He was treated so quickly that a family friend who is an infectious disease specialist visiting the day after my son was admitted to pediatric ICU said he was more worried about us than our child. Still, I felt like in those awful hours and days before we could be sure our child would be fine that I looked death in the face.
But now that I have a new friend who just lost her adult son unexpectedly to illness, I know that my pain was small. Very real, but small.
In holding the tension between my representational act of ashes and the horrific loss of parents in Parkland, I know that my suffering is trivial. Very real, but trivial.
In my prayers today I could not get quiet. Anger boiled up over politics that my heart says is a major contributor to too many deaths. Shame surfaced that I can do so very little to help even my friend who is nearby. Indignation swirled round in angry tides that God, who can do so much, has not stopped all this senseless death and more.
I’m not worried that God cannot handle my anger, shame, and indignation. God can handle it better than I can. But I am worried that these emotions paralyze me. When I am so caught up in the “me” I quickly lose the capacity to integrate deeply into the “we” that comes in quiet prayer. My suffering may seem small and trivial in comparison to so much that is happening today, but that suffering is nevertheless a passageway into a deeper compassion for others in pain.
I once spent several months working as an intern chaplain in a psychiatric unit and emergency room at a small hospital in Boston. As part of my self-care, I was doing yoga exercise classes one night a week at the local YMCA. One night, several months into the internship, as I lay on my yoga mat breathing and praying I was gifted with what all my books on contemplative prayer would call a unitive experience.
At first I could describe it. All the people I had cared for as a chaplain came into my mind all at once and I felt a powerful sense that we were all there together. After that, as is true with what the mystics describe when we draw close to God’s light, there are no words or even images to describe the experience.
It was powerful, somewhat frightening, and at the same time glorious and wonderful. Having experienced that unity with both suffering and wholeness, I find myself crying and laughing with the people around me in a deeper way. It can be a curse when all I really want to do is hold my emotions together, but I try hard to see it instead as a gift. This is a gift of compassion that I pray for the whole world to experience, as I truly believe that it is only in this kind of spiritual transformation for every person that our world can be healed.
I will continue to go to God and look for the quiet that leads to healing compassion. This is the most important work that I do, and it drives all my ministry. Aligned with God’s will I am no longer paralyzed and I can be a channel for Divine love and healing. So can you, which is why I do the work I do. There is hope even for suffering that seems incomprehensible. Thank you for helping me find it.
Have you ever attended an Ash Wednesday service? How do you understand the ashes being placed on believers’ foreheads? How do you find yourself feeling in the wake of so much national and local news on death, especially the death of children? Do you struggle to have hope or is hope a natural response for you? What experiences, if any have you had when you have tried silent, quiet or contemplative prayer? Have you experienced being unable to pray that way? Have you had experiences that are too deep for words? What do you do in the world to show compassion and hope for those who are suffering?
The great news is that we are all walking this journey of life together. When I cannot pray, others pray for me. When I can pray, others pray with me. Through my spiritual direction ministry at Openings: Let the Spirit In, I can help you work through whatever is holding you back in prayer. As we travel together, we really do manifest the spiritual transformation that the world so deeply needs. We do this not only for ourselves, but for all of creation crying out in pain. Join me on the journey.