Reflections on Grief, Gratitude, and Maturity

            My dear friend Father Larry Gosselin recently posted a quote from Francis Ward Weller, a therapist and grief counselor. I want to share it and a few of my own reflections.

            The work of the mature person

            Is to carry grief in one hand

            And gratitude in the other

            And to be stretched large by them.

            How much sorrow can I hold?

            That’s how much gratitude I can give.

            If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair.

            If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine

            And won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.

            Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft,

            Which makes compassion possible.

            At times in my life, I’ve been asked who my “spiritual heroes” are.  My response: the many older people I’ve known in my congregations.  They’ve lived through hard times and personal tragedies, but somehow have become calm, thoughtful, and caring.

            To this I’d add Hospice volunteers who’ve experienced the loss of people they loved, then followed a calling to simply be present with others living in times of fear and unknowing.

            Of course, maturity doesn’t always come with the accumulation of age; some young people have unusual wisdom and insight. We call them “old souls.”

            I’m wary of simplistic formulas for life. I distrust promises that we can be happy all the time if we just make the right effort. 

            I’ve known people who have lost loved ones in ways that will always haunt me, and I don’t know how they bear it.

            I do not believe there is a divine pain manager who sends suffering our way to improve our character.

            Eleven years ago, I participated in a retreat at Esalen with the great mystic and global spirituality scholar, Huston Smith.  He was 91 and physically frail.  I remember him saying, “We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, we die in mystery.” He said those words with a full smile and clear light in his eyes.

            Something is here that holds us.


Image: Close-up of “Return of the Prodigal” by Rembrandt

When I Fall

         In 1990, I attended a ceremony installing Bishop Francis George as the new bishop of Yakima, Washington.  It was a fancy event, but his personal remarks were brief.

         “I would like you to know,” he said, “that when I was young, I had polio.  As an adult, there are times when I lose my balance and fall.  If that happens and you are near me, don’t be alarmed.  Simply lend me a hand so I can get up, and we will go on.”

         He paused.

         “And as your bishop, there will be times when I may make a mistake performing my duties.  When that happens, don’t be alarmed. Simply lend me a hand so I can get up, and we will go on. Thank you.”

         I’ve thought of this often.  

         I don’t know what it’s like to have had polio or any other challenges people face.  I do know I’ve been absent minded since I was young; I’ve often said most of my life has been an out-of-body experience. I work at it.  And I’ve made it a practice to tell co-workers that I may forget things.  If they see me deciding on an action and wonder if I’ve failed to take something into account, I’ve asked them to let me know.  I want to do things well and I can use the help. 

         In our current “gotcha” culture, people are quick to make judgments about those who make mistakes.  To be sure, many times people need to be held accountable for their harmful actions; various politicians, sports figures, corporate executives, and entertainers quickly come to mind.  But if we make an innocent error, what a gift it is to have someone close to us not be alarmed and, instead, smile and offer us a hand.  We can recover and correct it. And we can go on together.

Art work: “Hands of Emperor Maximillian I,” Albrecht Durer, 1506

Honey and Other Things: Exploring Our Inner Selves

            Years ago, I heard a presentation by Tom Boyd, a philosophy professor from the University of Oklahoma. As a boy he spent summers with his grandfather on a ranch in Texas. One chore was to help harvest honey.   After collecting, they would filter it and pour it into jars, then apply a label, “Pure Honey.” 

            One time a particle had gotten past the filter.  Young Tom didn’t want to put it through the filter again. He told his grandfather they shouldn’t worry about it and sell it as is.

            “We can’t do that, Tom,” he said.  “Because then we’d have to make a new label: “Honey and Other Things.” 

            Tom said he never forgot that.

            Years ago, I was driving downtown on my way to volunteer at the local soup kitchen.  As I was driving, I remember a voice saying, “You know, going to serve the poor means you are a really good person. Other people will think that when they see you. It will add to your reputation.” 

            Another voice was shocked. “How self-centered can you get? That’s not why you’re doing it. You’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not at all about showing off.”

            It was only me in the car, so I had to own both voices.

            The genuine voice within me I’m going to think of as the honey. And the self-centered voice will be “other things.”  

            There are endless ideas about how many “selves” or personas we have within us.  Philosophy, theology, and psychology have all explored this question.  I’m going to work with just these two.

            Honey can be the divine presence in us that goes by many names: soul, higher self, inner light, Self, divine spark, etc.  And “other things” can represent our less-than-lofty aspect: the ego, self-centeredness, etc.

            Until my early 20s, I don’t think I was aware of two voices within.  I went day by day reacting to the world as I encountered it.

            After a mystical, transformative experience, I realized how incredibly self-centered I’d been. It had been all about me, and I’d made a mess of my life. But my soul had woken up.  There was now a small drop of honey within, not of my creation. It was a divine gift, it was grace and it became a guiding light.

            As I began to explore Christian spirituality, I often heard the assumption that we must be relentlessly focused on our “sinful nature.”  “You are selfish through and through. You don’t deserve grace. You’ve got to beg for it every day,” was the idea.

            I tried to extinguish that selfishness; I wanted to be pure honey. But in time I realized it was futile.  I concluded my ego wasn’t bad…it was simply trying to protect me. 

            Sometime after that, I was on a long drive on the freeway (apparently a good place for epiphanies).  I visualized standing apart from my ego self.  It was alone and cringing, frightened at being exposed. I walked over, put my arm around it, and said, “Hey, I know you are trying to do the best for me.  I appreciate how hard you work.  But I don’t want you to be in control all the time; you’re a better servant than master. Let’s collaborate instead of compete.” My ego passively accepted my embrace.

            I believe selfishness is a product of our evolutionary past. We do many things to survive, protect ourselves, get what we need, etc.  The “other things” are our biological inheritance. But if we are on a spiritual journey, we’ve decided we don’t want to be stuck there. We want to find something more, a higher good for ourselves and others.

            When I was at Hospice, a group of us attended a 5-day training at the Metta Institute in Marin County on “Cultivating Presence.”  We practiced Zen meditation several times a day, discussed how to care for the dying and heard a variety of speakers.  One of them was Ram Dass, a popular figure from the 60s who had turned from drugs to an Eastern spiritual practice. I’d read some of his work and seen him in person once, but never felt a connection.  One afternoon at the retreat, we had a video linkup with Ram Dass from his home in Maui.  He was talking in general terms and responding to questions in a relaxed and light-hearted way. But at one point, he paused, looked very serious — almost like he was in a trance — and said to us, “You are not a collection of your thoughts. You are loving awareness.”  Then his face relaxed and he continued his talk.

            I’m not sure what was going on, but I honestly felt a pulse of energy at that moment. I have not forgotten that feeling or those words.  Maybe deep within, beyond all the “other things,” we are pure honey … pure loving awareness.

            I don’t know what young Tom and his grandfather saw in that jar…was it a twig? A piece of grass?  Whatever it was, it came from the same blessed earth as the honey. It wasn’t inherently bad. It was just out of place.

            I have been blessed to know some people who seem like they are “Pure Honey.”  But I think most of us are “Honey and Other Things.” And that’s ok. We can accept the “other things” as part of who we are.  We can keep a filter handy. And we can be grateful for any “honey” we find as we go on our way.