As I make my way through life I seem to be slowly transitioning away from optimism. I was born a happy optimist, somewhere in my thirties became more realistic, and now, as I meander past the half-century mark, find life increasingly sobering.
I’m still optimistic, but these days I am more inclined to tuck hope in my back pocket, leaving both hands free to hold sorrow.
I’ve a ways to go, but I think I’ve begun to understand the value in this posture.
It is Easter Saturday, the day in between death and resurrection. Usually I am eager for Sunday to come with its glorious proclamation that life triumphs death. I believe in resurrection, and not just in the case of Jesus, but for myself and anyone who asks for it. My favourite quote comes from the second century Saint Iraneus: The glory of God is a person fully alive. I’ve asked God frequently to help me – and so many others – live in this reality. I think I’ve even seen it happen.
It’s hard for an optimist to stay very long in the pessimism of a Friday, especially one that commemorates a crucifixion. I felt this most keenly a few years ago when I collaborated with my friend, Greg, a talented choral director on a Good Friday Tenebrae service. Tenebrae is meant to be a grievous service with songs sung in minor keys and the liturgy focused on Jesus’s dying words.
Greg wisely chose music of lament. But the optimist in me always insisted on writing some hint of hope into the script. “I know this is about the death of Jesus,” I would complain to Greg. “But we know the end of the story. Can’t I just sneak in a little resurrection light?”
I think if I were to write a Tenebrae liturgy today, I’d leave the lights off; keep the tomb sealed, let sorrow fully elbow hope out of the picture. I’d give Friday ample room to tell its story, without insisting on that line we all love so much, the one about Sunday coming. I wouldn’t want to obscure the darkness with even a glimmer of light.
I have learned, over the years of my transition, that darkness brings its own clarity to life. Darkness compels me to examine reality by insisting that I heighten my senses, to stop relying only on what I can see. It compels time, thought, and, surely, discomfort.
Yesterday, on Good Friday, I finished reading In Bed with the
Word, a profound book by Daniel Coleman. Today I returned to the final chapter, Eating the Book, in which Coleman ponders the significance of three Biblical writers who were all instructed to receive, and then eat, a scroll filled with despairing words.
I’ve recently read the books of all these
writers – Jeremiah and Ezekiel, two Old Testament prophets, and John, the New Testament writer of Revelation – and so Coleman’s words were timely and helpful. He makes his point better than any paraphrase I could offer, so I’ll quote him:
“The book Ezekiel is required to eat is a book of lamentations, wailings, and moanings; Jeremiah’s name has become synonymous with despair; John of Patmos eats from the same unhappy book. Their’s is not a book about the purpose-driven life or the power of positive thinking, nor is it about the habits of highly effective people or how I’m okay and you’re okay. It’s not a book of instructions, happy endings jokes, erotic stimulation, beautiful poems or suggestions for self-improvement.
It is a book of grief, and there are good reasons why this is so…. There is a ‘still, sad music of humanity’ that the poet William Wordsworth knew about, and it pulsates deep in the heart, under the layers of brilliance and polish that we humans present to one another in our everyday, I-can-take-care-of-it-myself lives…. The book of sorrows, of lamentations, wailings, and moanings is a book we all know by heart when we are honest with ourselves…. And because it cuts to the chase, because it separates the joint from the marrow, the book of grief, rather than tasting only sour and bitter, can actually nourish us.”
Grief is not the place I want to live for the rest of my days. I’ve not transitioned so far from optimism that I’ve given it up completely. I can’t imagine I ever will.
I live my life in the hope and light of Resurrection Sunday. But I have become more and more willing to spend some of the days I’ve been given in sorrow, lament, doubt, despair, and yes, anger, frustration and even rage.
I am learning, slowly, to sit in the darkness until my eyes become accustomed to the gloom and I can see.