Yesterday, a friend again talked about how the right books find us at the right times. I’ve always felt guilty for buying books that I didn’t immediately read, but he doesn’t; he says they call to him when he needs them most or is most receptive to what they have to say. (And this is someone who got rid of most of his books when he moved but kept mine, so we know he has good taste!)
Maybe because of that conversation, later in the day I thought of Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross by Richard John Neuhaus, a book that came into my life years ago (and by “came into my life,” I mean exactly that: I was working as a book-review editor, and a lot of books showed up in my inbox). I always meant to read it during Holy Week, but for long time I forgot. I finally started it in 2019 but wasn’t able to focus on reading anything at that point, so I only got about 20 pages in. Although they were an impressive 20 pages; Father Neuhaus writes so beautifully that I sometimes find myself distracted by his language and have to reread passages to grasp the content.
So I pulled the book off the shelf last night and started it again, after good conversations with my mom and a new acquaintance in Ireland. (I signed up for an international pen-pal site the other day — one of those things I’d always thought sounded cool but never had time to pursue. So far, I’ve been asked to wire cash to the Gambia, gotten marriage proposals from Ghana and Morocco, discussed maritime history and silly sports team names with an Alabaman, received a Portuguese lesson from a Brazilian, and encountered a couple of people who might actually become real friends.)
And on page 2, I read this, regarding the discomfort we feel at the suffering and pain and loss of Good Friday (emphasis mine):
We recoil. We close our ears. We hurry on to Easter. But we will not know what to do with Easter’s light if we shun the friendship of the darkness that is wisdom’s way to light.
Friends, this week has been dark for me. On Facebook, I had been posting daily lists of what sustained me, nurtured me, brought me joy, gave me hope, brought a smile to my face and laughter to my heart. And then there was a day — I don’t remember now which one — when all I wanted to do was grab my pillow and curl up in the bathtub. But if I let myself do that, I wasn’t sure whether or how I’d find the will to climb back out. And when I reached that evening, I realized the best thing I could say about the day was that I hadn’t spent it hiding in the tub. That didn’t seem like something anyone needed to read in a list intended to encourage myself and hopefully a few others. So I didn’t post, and I haven’t since then.
This is really fucking hard. It just is. I will get through it, and I know I’m privileged because not everyone will. But I’m scared at the tolls it will exact — individually and collectively, on families and communities, on nations and the world. At a personal level, I’m terrified that this isolation will chip away so much of my soul that I’ll reel back into damage-control mode rather than being ready to embrace fullness and joy and peace and love on the other side.
Neuhaus’ words invite me to sit with the darkness. All the darkness. With what I need salvation and forgiveness and redemption from.
The thought comes to me that I can hold my own Good Friday service — a service of shadows, tenebrae. So I go to YouTube for the songs that speak most to me of Christ’s death: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “What Wondrous Love.” I open my Bible to the crucifixion story and light two candles. I choose these candles because they are white and that feels fitting, but I choose them even more because they came in a care package from a friend, and I need that reminder of being heard, seen, loved.
I turn out the lights and listen to the hymns, and then I realize that if I’m really trying to get at the meaning of Good Friday, I also need to think about sin: the ugliness, the despair. The wrongs I’ve done and the wrongs done to me. The things I need to be forgiven of and the things I need to forgive. The people I have hurt and those who have hurt me. The people I’ve lost: the ones who drifted away and the ones I drifted away from, the ones I miss keenly and the ones I’m glad to be rid of. The ones I’ve excised from my life and the ones who left because they didn’t know how to stay, or were scared to stay, or wanted a reason not to go but the reasons I gave them were never the reasons they needed to hear.
Everyone I know goes away in the end.
It’s not really true, and I know that. But sitting in my dark kitchen, past midnight on Good Friday in quarantine, as deeply alone as I’ve ever been and in ways that seem eternal, playing Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” over and over, it feels true.
Full of broken thoughts/ I cannot repair/ Beneath the stains of time/ the feeling disappears/ you are someone else/ I am still right here.
I think of all the things I wish I could excise from myself. The fragility, the futility, the frustration. The anxiety, the wounds. The way I chatter when I’m nervous and over-analyze until I get myself all knotted up in my own thoughts. The way I don’t focus enough on other people. How I loathe myself for failing at the things that matter most. I visualize all the parts of myself I want to shed as ashes, crumbling away under the pressure of this terrible isolation, this awful emptiness. I imagine the person I want to become: stronger, kinder, more loving, more confident, more peaceful. I hope that person is being born through all this. That some of this anguish comes from labor pains.
I find the video for Metallica’s “Until it Sleeps,” a series of Hieronymous Bosch images brought to life. Where do I take this pain of mine? I run but it stays right by my side. So tear me open, but beware…
And then, since I’m plunging through my own circles of hell, Cradle of Filth’s cover of “No Time to Cry,” the theme song to my novel, everything demented and warped and skewed, Just like Jesus never came, and what did you expect to find? It’s just like always here again.
I am so, so exhausted. With everything. Right now I find meaning and purpose in connecting with my students online, reading their e-mails and discussion board posts, seeing photos of their pets, smiling at the snippets of their lives they choose to share, feeling touched by how many of them express caring for me, too. But I long for more. I need more. I don’t know what that looks like in a time of social distancing. I don’t know how to find it, now or on the other side of this. I just know that for me, going back to the way things were would be even worse than enduring this.
I stop the music and start to read the crucifixion narrative out loud, my voice breaking. Soon I’m crying so hard I have to take off my reading glasses. Feeling so, so alone but knowing that’s nothing to what Jesus experienced.
And then this face peers at me over the laptop: my Rowena cat. Stubby-legged and stocky, she’s not a leaper, but she has hopped from the floor to a chair to the table to check out what I’m doing. And I realize that although the absence of human company is a constant agony, I’m not totally alone, and my animals have been making sure I know it.
Since her brother died last summer, Rowena has stayed close to me. She’s too fiercely independent to ever be clingy or cloying, but it’s rare that she’s more than a few feet away: stretched across my ankles while I work, sleeping under the bed, chattering while I brush my teeth, waiting on the toilet lid when I get out of the shower, sleeping on the back of the sofa (and squishing the cushions) while I write.
Her feather-duster tail doesn’t mix well with open flames, though, so I scoop her from the table, hug her, set her on the floor, and return to my reading. She finds a spot near my feet and breathes so loudly that I can’t forget I’m not the only living being in this room.
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).
How agonizing that was for Jesus: to be rent from God, from part of himself; to have his soul split apart, his being severed. And to plummet, fresh from that loss, into a hell that was more fully and foully hell for him than it ever has been or will be for anyone else, because he had to experience all of the punishments for all of the sins of all of us.
I can’t fathom what that was like. I can’t begin to imagine it. I want to be grateful that he endured this, that he chose to endure it — out of love. Right now, all I can do is be with this truth.
We are in the space — not just on the calendar, but metaphorically, in a way many of us have never experienced — between Good Friday and Easter. Like Christ’s followers, we are living with loss, with grief, with absence. Like them, we don’t know when it will end or what it means for our faith or how much more our belief can weather. We thought we were living one story and suddenly find ourselves in quite another, and it’s one we can’t predict, can’t control, could never have prepared for.
It’s okay to mourn. Indeed, we need to allow ourselves to mourn. The space between the crucifixion and resurrection is a time for mourning. Like Christ’s followers, we sit by the tomb and weep for what we have lost.
We don’t yet know what we will gain. We haven’t reached that part of the story.
Because books are helping me make sense of things and getting me out of my head, I’m spending this Saturday dipping into a stack of titles that speak to the darkness: Neuhaus but also
- Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair by Miriam Greenspan
- The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron
- Letters from the Land of Cancer by Walter Wangerin Jr.
- A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss by Jerry Sittser
- Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World by Max Lucado
Tomorrow, I’m going to celebrate Easter with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, because I crave that beautiful scene when Susan and Lucy romp with the resurrected Aslan, when even though they are needed to turn the tide of the battle, they pause to experience joy, to share in the pure delight of life and love and being with each other.
The last time I hugged anyone was four weeks ago. (Yes, I’m counting.) I went to a friend’s for a final pre-quarantine visit, and when I pulled into the driveway, her eight-year-old daughter came running out in white socks. I gave her a piggyback ride back to the house, where she snuggled with me in an armchair while her mom and I talked and watched a movie. It was an afternoon of laughter and affection and warmth, a memory I cherish. And a promise I hold to.
I don’t expect to greet Easter tomorrow with joy; I’m not yet able to summon joy in this confinement. I’ll settle for hope and for the comfort my animals provide, especially the black kitty who has supervised the writing of this blog post and is even now perched on my forearm, purring and trying to catch my fingers on the keyboard. I’ll hold to Easter as a promise and a reminder that resurrection does indeed arrive. That “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
May that morning come soon for all of us, my friends, and may Christ hold us close as we endure the wait.