THE SILENCE OF GRIEF
The events of this past week are, as they say, “Of Biblical proportions.” Many stories that are a collection of legends and myths, mixed with history, come to mind.
One that came to my mind is the story of Job. You know the story. Or do you?
God and Satan devise a plan to test poor, innocent Job. God was bragging about him and rubbing Job’s goodness into Satan’s face. So Satan said, “Let’s put him to the test,” and God agreed. Satan heaped enormous, overwhelming suffering on Job.
The story says that Job’s three closest friends heard about the great tragedies which Job had suffered they came to him. As they approached, they didn’t recognize him, at first. Then they realized that this big mess was their old friend Job. The poem says, “They raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads…”
Then, the poignant poem says, they stayed with him for a week: “They sat with him…seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
What an amazing thing to do: to sit together for an entire week without uttering a word. This is the source of the Jewish custom of sitting shiva; the word shiva is from the Hebrew word for seven.
Now that’s a sacred silence.
When they finally broke their silence a friend says: “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? Yet who can keep from speaking?”
We were reminded of the story of Job this week. Oh that we could take a lesson and sit shiva for a week, or even a day or two…to mourn, and to express our humility as well as our overwhelming sense of grief.
Job’s friends finally spoke, and Job was, indeed, offended. They told him that God was a just God, so he got what he deserved. They told him that God was a merciful God, so he deserved even worse punishment.
These theological assertions were not pleasing to Job!
They weren’t pleasing to me, either, when I read what Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said about God. They said that Tuesday’s terrible destruction was God’s response to this sinful nation which condones homosexuality, feminism and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“If one ventures a word with you will you be offended?”
If I attempted to express how offended I am by such theological attacks I would probably turn into a babbling fool. This terrible theology which Hebrew poets put in the mouths of Job’s friends thousands of years ago, turns God into a monster.
Yes, Job was offended, and so am I, and so are you. Job told his friends that his suffering was bad enough, but they made it worse.
WHERE WERE YOU…on the morning of September 11?
On Tuesday morning I heard from our church sexton, Bobby, that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. “What a terrible accident,” I thought.
Then I got on my motorcycle and drove to a regularly scheduled clergy meeting in Mt. Kisco, not knowing that the plane that hit the North tower was not an accident. I had no radio on the bike.
After arriving at the meeting we listened in shock to an eye-witness account of things unfolding and learned about the attack on the Pentagon as well as the World Trade Center and knew, then, that America was under attack…an attack more horrendous and far-reaching than Pearl Harbor.
I came back to my office, to re-write my newsletter my Dear Friends letter.
Then I telephoned the First Selectman’s office and suggested a town-wide service of ‘hope and healing.’
I was invited to a meeting of town officials at the Emergency Operations Center at the main firehouse in Westport.
The Police Chief, Fire Chief, First Selectwoman and various department heads briefed the clergy and one another. The atmosphere in the room was serious and somber, of course, but the Police and Fire Chiefs and the First Selectwoman provided a model of calm and a sense that they were in control.
They were making plans and formulating strategies for the terrible tasks that would unfold.
There was a sense that trustworthy people were in charge.
There was a sense that we were safe, now, here in Westport.
As the meeting was coming to a close, the First Selectwoman asked me to organize the service I had suggested for the following night. Then she asked me to lead that group in prayer.
A SACRED SILENCE
I almost said, “Please ask someone else.” During the meeting I had been watching the television monitor-no sound was needed. It was the first visuals I had seen, and I was stunned. I felt dazed, as if I had been hit over the head and rendered senseless, unable to think straight, much less to put coherent sentences together. I felt like I didn’t have adequate words.
The room was packed with community leaders so we had to form concentric circles, holding hands for a time of prayer, and I wondered what words would come to me from that deep place, or if I would be able to tap into it.
I said, to cover the uncomfortable silence, “We begin in silence.” I don’t know what else I said. I did not invoke a deity- I did not ask God to alter the universe for us, since such a request suggests that God had a hand in the disaster happening to begin with!
I asked that our leaders, those in this room and elsewhere, find the inner strength and wisdom to face the awesome assignments each of us, and each of them, faced.
I used Emerson’s phrase: ‘There is a deep power in which we exist…” This is the broadest way I know of to call upon those inner resources that we need to know is available to us.
The truth is, I felt inadequate to the task I’d been assigned in that moment- to offer an adequate prayer for this diverse group, most of whom expected me, as a clergyperson, to talk to God on their behalf…something like that.
Truth be told, I wasn’t feeling the presence of any kind of god at that moment, and I’ve had a hard time with feeling the presence of the kind of god I hear other so-called religious people talking about. I have heard the god that Falwell and Robertson talk about, and it offends every sensitive bone of my theology.
That day I was consciously aware of feeling a very real and deep distance from any such thing as a god who is involved in this tragedy- a god who is involved in the day-to-day affairs of this world, to say nothing of the god invoked by religious fanatics–the Taliban, or Osama bin Laden.
I knew what Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would say, but even so, it was difficult to hear reports on Friday that they blamed the ACLU, the homosexuals, the feminists and others who uphold the basic human rights on which this nation was built.
In the hours and days since planes were turned into bombs and aimed at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, I have listened to and read thousands of words, spoken by well-meaning religious and political leaders, written by colleagues, some who went on and on and on.
During most of my life I’ve felt like I have something to say and I appreciate the chance to say it. Even before my careers in teaching and ministry…as early as elementary school I remember wanting to be called on, wanting to be able to give the answers or give my opinion or idea.
Seldom have I felt such a loss for words. Seldom have I felt such a need for silence…a sacred silence that comes from respect and humility.
Marianne Moore said, “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence but restraint.”
Sometimes we experience a silence that is profound, a sacred silence…a respectful silence…a holy, devotional silence.
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence…nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune, but do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness….in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.”
“…AND A TIME TO SPEAK”
But silence isn’t always sacred.
Some silence is a form of shunning. When we’ve had a falling out with someone we say that ‘we’re not speaking.’
Some silence is cowardly, as when we fail to speak up in the face of blatant racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or xenophobia.
Not everyone who has been waving a flag this week is a patriotic American who wants to preserve the ‘freedom and justice for all’ – words they recite mindlessly when they pledge their allegiance to that flag. Some silence is not sacred.
No matter what happens in the days and weeks ahead, we must be ready and willing to speak up, to defend the Muslim and Arab-Americans who are living out their allegiance to this nation.
“For everything there is a season…a time to keep silence and a time to speak…a time to speak up!”
Fanatics attacked America on Tuesday in New York and Washington, and equally deranged fanatics attacked Arab-Americans in Bridgeport and San Francisco.
Some of the meanest, most dangerous madmen who ever walked this earth have been motivated by what they say is a sacred cause. Some of the most foul and obscene deeds have been committed in the name of religion. Some people drape themselves with a flag and commit atrocities, and patriotism is blemished the same way religion gets blemished by remarks like those made by Falwell and Robertson.
As we respect the variety of faiths in which our brothers and sisters find comfort, may we also have the courage to speak against the prejudices which pave the road to violence.
We need one another, not simply to agree with ideas and opinions, not simply to have people willing to listen so we can get something off our chest, but to help us to ‘know ourselves more moderately.’
We need one another, now, so that we can mourn and be comforted. We need one another, now, because this is a time of trouble; we need one another, now, to recall us to our best selves; we need one another, now, so that we can endure and continue the great task which remains before us:
To preserve this great nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal. It is once again being ‘tested.’ It can endure. And with the help of that ‘deep power in which we exist,’ the best part of our human nature, which some call God…with help from that deep, inner source, it will endure!
A Brave and Startling Truth, by Maya Angelou
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms
When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn and scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse
When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets
Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.