A Sermon by Rev.Rev. Martha Niebanck
Minister Emerita of First Parish in Brookline, MA
To listen to this sermon, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box:
I come from a family of criers. We cry when we are angry, when we tell the truth, when we experience beauty. I confess that I cried during the prelude. Despite our culture’s rule about the privacy of tears—I have not been domesticated.
I know that this is the time of year when not everyone feels jolly. In the growing dark and cold, memories surface and some feel the loss of what was once familiar. On Christmas Eve when I have looked out on candlelit faces, I can feel both the presence and absence of particular people who have passed away. I savor the faces of those present, knowing that next year some will be missing.
Thirty-five years ago today, my husband’s business and our entire source of income were destroyed by an arson fire. I watched my husband on TV as he frantically used bolt cutters to remove the locks on the grates so that the firefighters could get in. I can still remember the smell of smoke, the sound of broken glass under my feet, and the sight of a telephone melted like black taffy coming down the wall.
On the night of the fire I felt angry, helpless, and full of uncertainty but kept my game face on for the sake of my eight-year-old son. After a sleepless night of wondering if we had any cash to buy milk, we got dressed up and went to the First Parish Church in Canton as usual. We were brand new UU’s, and we did not know most of the people in the pews. Despite the presence of strangers, I began to sob as soon as my body relaxed into the pew cushion.
Have you ever been surprised by grief as you relaxed into the womb of sanctuary? Have tears come during communal singing or silence? I have heard about that experience of release from many Unitarian Universalists over the years. I notice that we do our weeping quietly for the most part though.
An indigenous teacher Martín Prechtel lectures and writes about the silence of Western grieving as compared to the keening and wailing of the grieving in his community. (Martín Prechtel,“The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise,” North Atlantic Books, 2015 and https://youtu.be/h6h3JNOCTYc)
I was introduced to his work by my Buddhist teacher many years ago as he helped me to prepare the funeral service for a Jacqui, a five-year-old who died from a brain tumor. I quoted Prechtel when I said that the sound of our grief would paddle her small boat, her “curach” to the shore of stars where the ancestors were waiting to receive her.
I have returned to Martin Prechtel’s teachings about grief in the last couple of years—especially as climate scientists and activists were writing books that advised that grief was a necessary step in the work of coming awake to the global tragedy of global warming, the inevitable economic collapse as we meet the limits of consuming one-and-a-half planet’s worth of resources, and the likely rise of authoritarianism in the wake of chaos and disruption.
I have been trying to stay awake to grief—my own, my family’s, my community’s, this nation’s, and the world’s grief. When I talk with others about this time of unimaginable losses caused by global warming, shaking with grief and speaking with the voice of a heart broken open—I am met with concern about my “depression,” with active attempts to cheer me up with bromides about hope, as well as some gentle reminders that I am not being congruent with my email sign-off—“Remember joy.”
I notice how quickly public conversations shift from the feelings of grief to “thoughts and prayers,” seeking the causes of the loss, and blame. Feelings move to analysis in the blink of an eye—before a single tear has been shed. I notice the absence of the sound of grief and while voices crack with the effort to keep control of the emotions that stick in the throat.
I wonder if we are not stuck in a disembodied state of despair as described by the poet David Whyte: “Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore. Despair is the place we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world.”
The release of grief requires a letting go of self control, letting the body do what it needs to do, without concern for appearance or propriety. Without being able to lose control—to breathe ourselves back to life—we stay stuck in despair. As long as we remain disconnected from the body’s wisdom of grief, we are playing dead. And playing dead is baked into the cake of Western culture.
Listen to the decree made by 62 bishops in 589 of the Common Era that forbid crying at funerals:
“The bodies of all religious who, called by God, depart from this life, should be carried to the grave amid psalms and the voices of the chanters only, but we absolutely forbid burial songs, which are commonly sung for the dead, and the accompaniment [of the corpse] by the family and dependents of the deceased, beating their breast. … Therefore if the bishop is able, he should not hesitate to forbid all Christians to do this. Clerics, too, should not act in any other way, for it is fitting that throughout the world deceased Christians should be buried thus.* (Decree XXII, The Third Council of Toledo, sixty-two bishops attending, 589 AD)
And now, when so much of our culture and our planet is dying and dead, are we stuck in a despair that deprives us of breath, emotion, liveliness, and agency? Or might we shake off the Bishop’s regulation of emotion and learn to grieve completely in a way that fully expresses our love and praise for what has been lost? What would happen if we were to return to our senses and come alive grieving and praising what has been lost without restraint?
Prechtel writes, “Grief expressed out loud, whether in or out of character, unchoreographed and honest, for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.“
Prechtel teaches that the story of the loved one must be told, going back through the generations, to the very beginning of their family story. And there must be singing. You must sing your mother, your father, your brothers and sisters home to the beach of stars. Grief unexpressed keeps their souls here as a hungry ghost fed only by the shopping, eating, drinking, and the consumption of mindless media by the living. Grief unexpressed might also become blame and anger and a source of violence that leads to war.
I have loved learning from the wisdom Martin Prechtel has shared—but realize that borrowing his community’s mourning rituals could only backfire. Most of us do not have communal space that can keep a mourner safe while out of control without intruding with judgements.
Prechtel shares a story of one of his Western students who tried to put indigenous communal practices into the preparations for the funeral of his mother, a stoic Scandinavian Lutheran. When he dropped to his knees, shaking and crying and singing with grief, as his mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground, he refused to leave the grave. His Lutheran pastor called an ambulance. His aunties told him that his crying would not bring his mother back. He answered, “I wasn’t crying to bring her back. I was weeping to help her get where she was going (to meet the ancestors) faster and easier.” When he explained to them how grief was a good thing for both the dead and the living—there was only silence in reply.
Appropriating another culture’s rituals without grounding is dangerous. Still, I am convinced that there is much that a person can do to breathe the way out of despair, to come to their senses, to praise this life with eloquence.
“Even in this strangely convoluted war-strapped monetized boxed life with modernity’s polarized spiritual failure at the wheel, people could still live differently, noticing life’s details, expressing more compassionately, and similarly create life when they talk or listen to someone who takes the courage to let their loss turn to grief, and grief into beauty.“ (Prechtel)
In this season of growing darkness, we might return to the ancient practices of earth-based religion we can discover in the rituals of Advent, Solstice, Hannukah, and Kwanza. We can sit together in the dark with fire; we can dazzle our senses with good food, beautiful colors, and the sounds of singing—the light of reflections from the eyes of both the beloved and stranger. And by returning to our senses we will be able to speak of what we will lose with eloquence when the time comes to grieve. We will have better stories to tell about the days and ways gone by. We will be able to bring our whole selves to making the sound of grief that becomes the praise of gratitude.
Let us begin with a song of praise for the earth. forever turning.
“Despair” by David Whyte
Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear …, or when our God disappoints, or when our body is carrying profound pain in a way that does not seem to go away.
Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty. ….. Despair turns to depression…when we .. start to shape our identity around its frozen disappointments.
But despair can only stay beyond its appointed time through the forced artificiality of created distance, by abstracting ourselves from bodily feeling, …by refusing to let the body breathe. To keep despair alive we have to abstract and immobilize our bodies, our faculties of hearing, touch and smell, …
The antidote to despair is not to be found in the brave attempt to cheer ourselves up with happy abstracts, but in paying a profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath, independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even strangely, in paying attention to despair itself, and the way we hold it….
To see and experience despair fully in our body is to begin to see it as a necessary … first step in letting it have its own life, neither holding it nor moving it on before its time. We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here. We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again. In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else. …
Refusing to despair about despair itself, we can let despair have its own natural life and take a first step onto the foundational ground of human compassion, the ability to see and understand and touch and even speak, the heartfelt grief of another.
“Beannacht” by John O’Donohue
On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.