Holding the Light

Holding the Light

August 17, 2014
Stina Pope


This has been a hard week. It started out for me with seeing the picture of the Cathedral in Nagasaki that was UrakamiTenshudoJan1946nagasakidestroyed, full of people, and reading that the picture was important because the remains of the Cathedral had quickly been removed and replaced. But people do remember. And it was terribly wrong to do that second bombing. Then Sue got a call, the family of one of her parishioners was in danger from one of the family members who was threatening to shoot them. He was mentally ill, but this was the first time he had gotten so violent. And then another call, another family where the husband had “not been himself” that day, and had not come home. He never made it home.

Then the news came in about Robin Williams. He went to the Claremont Colleges when I was there, he was in the improv group that my boyfriend was in, we saw him socially sometimes. He really was that funny, all the time. And life was not fun for him, a lot of the time. He drank and did drugs to deal with the pain, too much sometimes, and the pain took over in the end. In trying to know how to deal with this pain that has struck such a deep chord for so many people, I ran across a FB post from Ann Lamott that was helpful to me. She talked about the abyss, that deep dark hole that is so deep that we cannot see the light. She said our brother Robin fell into it, and now we are all staring at the abyss. She tried to make meaning out of his death, and said, no, there is no meaning, except as it “sheds light on our common humanity, as his life did.” And then she said, “I’ve learned that there can be meaning without things making sense.” There can be meaning without things making sense. That is hard for me, but I think it is true.

And what else is true, she says, is that a third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. A third, which includes a fair number of us. And, if you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction, “life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of abyss.” How many of us feel that way, maybe not all the time, but enough, that it is a full time job trying to learn how to function in a world that frequently does not make sense to us. Sometimes it makes sense we don’t like, and that calls for a different response.

We see the abyss, she says, “in Newtown, in all barbarity and suffering, in Robin’s death, on Mount Sinjar, in the Ebola towns, the streets of India’s ghettos, and our own, we see Christ crucified. I don’t mean that in a nice, Christian-y way. I mean that in the most ultimate human and existential way. The temptation is to say, as cute little believers sometimes do, Oh it will all make sense someday. The thing is, it may not. We still sit with scared, dying people; we get the thirsty drinks of water.” Even when it does not make sense, when nothing makes sense, what we can do is to sit with the dying ones, and to bring the thirsty ones drinks of water. We can ask them to tell their stories. We can listen, even when nothing else makes sense. We can listen, and sometimes, we raise our voices, in response to the media overreaction about Ebola, in response to Ferguson, in support of some things, and in condemnation of others.

Lamott quotes Fred Buechner: “It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling.” And so, she says to all of us: “Live stories worth telling! Stop hitting the snooze button. Try not to squander your life on meaningless, multi-tasking bullshit. I would shake you and me but Robin is shaking us now.” Live stories worth telling. Sometimes we think our stories are not worth telling because we are not a TV personality. However, stories do not have to be something they would put in a book, but rather real life is a story that makes a difference to someone else.

Then she says this: “If you need to stop drinking or drugging, I can tell you this: you will be surrounded by arms of love like you have never, not once, imagined. This help will be available twenty/seven. Can you imagine that in this dark scary screwed up world, that I can promise you this? That we will never be closed, if you need us?” This is an incredibly profound statement, a statement of faith, and again, one that is true for all of us. Help is always there for all of us, 24/7, those arms of love. And some of those arms are ours. Even with our old battered selves and aching backs, she says, “we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity.”

It is so hard. When we look at the abyss, it sometimes feels like being in the frozen north, where it is easier to just lie down and go to sleep and let death take you than it is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Some people do not have that problem, and they are blessed. They see the abyss, and they know it is not good, and they simply do not go near it. Then there are the rest of us, those of us who tried to commit suicide as children, but it didn’t work, those of us who fell down, and got help, and still feel guilty about getting help, those of us who still wonder sometimes whether it would work to simply drive off the cliff, but are too afraid that it wouldn’t work, that we would survive, and that would be worse. There are the rest of us, some of us have touched the abyss, some of us have looked into it, some have fallen in, some simply know it is there, and that is bad enough.

What I can tell you is that there is help, and if the first person you turn to does not help, then try someone else. There are things we know now about the brain, and brain health, that really is new, and really makes a major difference, for both depression and addiction. I have seen it work wonders. Get help. Glenn Close has an astonishing organization to raise awareness and diminish the stigma of mental illness, where you can give OR receive help: http://www.bringchange2mind.org. Go there, OK?

Get help. Be a resurrection story. And the, what do you think: Can we be a resurrection community? A place where people can come and be safe and feel the arms of God? Lamott says, “Gravity yanks us down,” and this is where we need to pay attention to each other. When someone is having trouble, stay with them, and when you cannot, find someone else who can. There are times when we know we are too close to the abyss ourselves, and it is too much for us to do to stay with someone who is leaning over it. We saw that working with AIDS. Volunteers are not allowed to work with a new client for six months after the previous one has died. We need time out to refresh our spirits.

How do you refresh your spirit? It is important to know. There is more than one way to do it, and some ways help some people more than others. Being outside in nature, listening to good music, having tea with friends, coming together and giving thanks for life, that is what we do here. We give thanks, we express our gratitude to God for light and life. Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Giving thanks, whether we feel like it or not, is important, because we now know that “going through the motions” actually sets our brains up to do certain things. When you smile, even when you don’t feel like smiling, it does certain things in the brain to make you feel better. There is a yoga practice called laughter yoga, where you start out with forced ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho, and it doesn’t take long for real belly laughs to start. I watched a video where a man at a bus stop is looking at his cell phone, and he starts laughing. He can’t stop, he just keeps laughing, finally howling with laughter. The very straight-laced controlled people around him can’t help themselves. They start smiling, and eventually most of them are giggling if not outright laughing with him.

The Eucharistic prayer we have been using talks a lot about light, Jesus is the light, the light in us, the light we receive, lots of light images. In this time of darkness, it is terribly important to remember that one candle overcomes a lot of darkness. We do not have to be the light, we carry the light of Christ. Carrying that light, we can walk into the dark places of our souls. Carrying that light, we can walk into the dark places of our world, and offer light, and presence, and with that, hope. It is an incredible gift, to simply be with someone, to sit with them until the light comes back to their eyes. We are not God, sometimes we miss the signals, and sometimes we simply cannot do anything even when we can see them, and we lose them. And we grieve, and it is well when we grieve together.

We hold this gift of life in earthen vessels, we are not perfect, but it is what we have. We do not have to make light, but we are asked to hold the light. And when we cannot hold it for ourselves, that’s what the rest of us are here for. Thanks be to God!