Holy Week: A lesson in patience with unbearable losses

By Rev. M Jade Kaiser;
All italicized text from Dr. Judith Butler’s 2014 PEN Presentation

It’s Maundy Thursday.

The knowledge of death hangs heavy. We do our best to find each other, but our tables are so far apart. Tonight, Jesus will be weeping in something like an empty garden somewhere. A lonely house. A jail cell. Or an isolated hospital room praying: “let it pass, let it pass.”

We do not remember the last time we felt such deep urges to be together.

“Before ever losing we are lost in the other, lost without the other, but we never knew it as well as when we do actually lose.”

It’s Good Friday.

The underbelly of our world is on display:

The cross, a violent tool of systemic evil, abusing death’s rightful place in the rhythm of life. It hopes to break us and to break our movements apart, to buy our loyalty with despair. It hopes the bonds of love will be severed permanently, masking conquer-and-divide tactics with notions of false peace. By deadening compassion, it promises relief of our pain.

“The destructive acts born of unbearable grief are perhaps premised on the thought that with this loss everything is already destroyed, so destroying becomes a redundancy…We know the contours of this terrible circle – destroying to stop the unbearable grief, to bring an end to the unbearable, only to then re-double that loss by destroying again.”

At the deepest level, we are negotiating between competing desires while we are busy trying to survive. Fight this unbearable grief by turning destruction inward or upon each other. Justify. Shut-down. Tune-out. Attack. This, or take the risk of crumbling into honesty and weeping that does not promise an end.

It’s Holy Saturday. 

The streets are empty. We are denied access to the bodies entombed. Our elders. Our family. Our neighbors. We mourn them and more. The losses are varied and many. There is little comfort. But we do not fight our grief.

“Mourning has to do with yielding to an unwanted transformation…it cannot be willed…it is a kind of undoing. One is hit by waves in the middle of the day, in the midst of a task, and everything stops…”

This grief will change us.

“When we lose certain people or when we are dispossessed from a place or a community it may be that something about who we are suddenly flashes up – something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that we are bound to one another.”

We try to pay attention. We remember the prophets. We hear them differently now.

It is Easter morning.

We don’t know where to go from here. We are angry, confused, and afraid. We miss our beloved(s). We miss the future we imagined, too.

But we do what we know to do – show up to the sites of death with our small offerings, tending wounds with care and bestowing dignity where it is deserved. We muster the strength to do so because we loved a person, a community, the earth.

We arrive at the place of despair with our salves.

We are surprised by what we find – an encounter with life.

“A loss may seem utterly personal, private, isolating but it also may furnish an unexpected concept of political community…if the life that is mine is not originally or finally separable from yours than the ‘we’ who we are is not just a composite of you and me and all the others but a set of relationships of interdependency and passion.”

This is not a victory or a triumph. We are done with tactics of survival that depend on mastery and control. This is a different kind of life-force. One that rises, strong and soft. One that opens us up to find ourselves in each other.

“What follows is an ethical injunction to preserve those bonds – even the wretched ones – which means precisely guarding against those forms of destructiveness that take away our lives and those of other living beings and the ecological conditions of life.”

The lure of ordinary destruction has been preying upon our broken hearts. Calling us to return to the familiar – individualism, consumption, inequity, hierarchies of value…but this tour of hell has only unveiled what it meant to hide.

“We are from the start done and undone by the other and if we refuse that, we refuse passion, life, and loss – the lived form of that refusal is destruction…”

Our grief does not break us. At least, not forever or in full. But it has laid us bare. Naked, we cannot deny – we are flesh of each other’s flesh, bone of each other’s bone. And so we practice solidarity with life past, present, and future and we are reborn. We re-member the body of God – slowly stitching life back together on different terms. Just terms. Loving terms. Collective terms. Life has endured, even if only barely, and we will help it grow, together.

“It seems unbearable to be patient with unbearable loss and yet that slowness – that impediment – can be a condition for showing what we value and even perhaps what steps to take to preserve what is left of what we love.”

May it be so.

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