In the wake of my mother’s death, I have needs.
One might even say I have liturgical needs, in the sense of leitourgia, worship as the work of the people. But, not being a student of thanatology (yes, there are apparently theologies of death – who knew?), I have not felt well-equipped. For a religion that has a lot to say about what happens after death, we are not really all that good at death (more about that later). Or its immediate aftermath.
So, I have needs. Purification … prayer … and oh, have I needed to laugh. We’ll start there.
My mother used to tell me about a saying her father had: “I hasten to laugh for fear I may be obliged to cry.” She said it was a lot prettier in French, which is how he would say it, but she couldn’t remember the French. And I haven’t met anyone who has been willing to translate and teach me the phrase. (Of course, what I really want to learn is an East Texas bayou patois version ….)
I have hastened to laugh, to leaven the tears that fell and especially those that didn’t. I have wanted things to be simple, and they just haven’t been. I have wanted to grieve my mother’s death, and it just hasn’t felt safe to do so. First I had to walk through the valley of the shadow of my mother’s death. But it wasn’t my mother or her death casting the shadow; it was the familial and religious pathologies waiting for me in Texas.
I knew it would be bad; I asked for help. And I got it ahead of time. In The Threat of Life, a collection of sermons, Walter Brueggeman gives Psalm 23 a workout. I especially loved his take on “I shall not want.” I adopted it as my mantra, adapting it to my needs. “I shall not want to take charge of everything. I shall not want to control other’s behaviors to maintain my own equilibrium. I shall not want to hide from everything that could hurt or diminish me.”
Still, I was surprised at how things seemed to pile on … The abusive brother whose hugs I could not avoid without making a scene. The aunt who was overjoyed at those embraces, unaware they left me feeling soiled. The female cousins and nieces making plans for me that fit their male relatives’ needs and desires, without consulting mine. The preacher who rambled through three different calls to the altar before I finally interrupted with a request to give my mother’s eulogy.
M and I began to count the episodes of negation, as a game to lighten the load, but when the tally reached a dozen in less than 36 hours, it just wasn’t funny any more. It was overwhelming evidence of a patriarchy that refused to acknowledge me as a person, much less as the head of my family (you know, the executor of the parents’ wills, the financial manager, the memorial service planner, the burial and headstone arranger … etc.). And, sadly, of female collusion with and internalization of that androcentrism.
That’s hard to laugh at. So, we decided to laugh with each other, instead, spinning parodies and stand-up routines until our laughter turned the corner home, and became something quieter. An exhale … of quiet gratitude to be home.
But I still didn’t feel free to grieve. I felt the need to wash. I thought about another line in the 23rd Psalm that I have pondered for years, ever since an older woman-friend told me how much it meant to her: the good shepherd “restores my soul.” But how? In this case, caught between selfhood and the abnegations of anti-woman theologies, how?
I kept thinking, too, about the Jewish tradition of the mikveh, a ritual bath that washes away sins or impurities. A mikveh contains living water: i.e., water that flows and is refreshed, not a static pool. The person bathing removes all clothing and jewelry, and immerses herself in the water, submerging the head. In some Jewish traditions, converts to Judaism immerse themselves three times in the mikveh.
Contemplating the mikveh, I felt a pang of religion-envy: the Christian tradition is very clear that one baptism is all you need get. But the water of life is exactly what I need right now, I was thinking. A sign-reminder that resurrection power – the power of new life and a new way of living – is available to me right now.
On Sunday morning this weekend, church inside walls did not feel like what I needed. M and I headed out into the cool of a rain-dampened morning, and ended up at the Sarah P. Duke Garden at Duke University. We wandered through, feasting on the sights of Japanese maples and fruiting cherry trees, herons and mallards, even a male cardinal feeding his fledgling in the grass (thank you, God, for a positive male image).
Then, in a little cove of bamboo, we saw a beautiful stone urn full of water, with a bamboo spigot hanging over it.
I flashed back to a long-ago trip to Japan, remembering the worshippers at Shinto shrines, performing ritual ablutions. This is misogi harai: misogi, the purification of body and soul by bathing in water, and harai, to brush off dust or pay one’s debts. To this Christian amateur, misogi harai bears more than a little resemblance to the function of the mikveh in Jewish practice.
As the memory arose, I immediately moved to the stone basin and began washing my hands in it … brought cupfuls of clear water up in my hands, tossed them sparkling into the air, and then ran my wet hands through my hair, and over my face. My beloved M joined me; we washed the dust of South Texas from our hands, and made our faces new.
* * *
I did not know yesterday that my bath was not yet complete. Today, after a life-giving run on Occoneechee mountain, I got distracted by chores. But then, walking through the house, I suddenly awoke to the gentle shout of thousands of raindrops on tens of thousands of pine needles.
And dropped my sweaty clothes … removed my shoes … took off my watch … and stepped into a shower of grace. The chill drops made me laugh and brought goose bumps all over. I raised my arms over my head, reinventing the sun salutation as a rain recognition. Again I smoothed the water over my skin, every inch this time, stepping into puddles to wash the figurative dust from my feet.
Prayer too deep for words … this prayer said something like “Restore me, O God. Restore my soul.”
* * *
And yet, it is prayer with words I am looking for now, the coracle of language to carry me on. The mourner’s Kaddish is not my tradition, either … but in respectful curiosity I have looked at it, and found that it is not about grief or death, but about creation, and God’s gracious sovereignty of it. I look into the words of my own traditions, searching for a prayer I can live with for a while, something wider than grief, something that can hold my ambivalences and shifts.
The great, too-soon-lost-to-us poet/philosopher John O’Donohue gives my heart a place once more. As I sit in the dark of evening, listening to the mad cries of the barred owl with the ears of my lonesome heart, I read these words, and I believe this will do. I will take these words up again and again. As often as needed.
May you know that absence is alive with hidden
presence, that nothing is ever lost or forgotten.
May the absences in your life grow full of eternal echo.
May you sense around you the secret Elsewhere
where the presences that have left you dwell.
May you be generous in your embrace of loss.
May the sore well of grief turn into a seamless flow
May your compassion reach out to the ones we never
May you have the courage to speak for the excluded ones.
May you become the gracious and passionate subject
of your own life.
May you not disrespect your mystery through brittle
words or false belonging.
May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and
and twilight are one.
May your longing inhabit its dreams within the