Grief and Scripture: “The entrance of Thy words giveth light” (Psalm 118:130 LXX)

ScriptureIn grief, we are sometimes at a complete loss for words to describe the pain we feel and the emptiness we experience. And yet, putting words on our experience enables us get a handle on it, so that we are not subject to it, but it becomes subject to us. Unfortunately, we sometimes do not have the energy or the clarity to find the words we need to bring some order to our disorder and some peace to our unrest. This is where “remedies derived from Scripture” (John Chrysostom, Commentary on Ephesians 21, PG 62.152) can be of great use, taking us on a journey through our own anguish and leading us to the peace of God, “which passeth all understanding” (Phillipians 4:7). And along the way, we learn first hand that truly “the entrance of Thy words giveth light” (Psalm 118:130 LXX).

Reading appropriate portions of Scripture during a time of grief and tragedy can begin the process of healing. For example, the words of Job after his loss can express with a bold honesty how our own loss has made life appear utterly joyless: “Oh that my grief were thoroughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore my words are swallowed up. For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me. Doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass? Or loweth the ox over his fodder? Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt? Or is there any taste in the white of an egg? The things that my soul refused to touch are as my sorrowful meat” (Job 6: 3-9). And yet as the book of Job does not end with lamentation, but with the revelation of God’s glory, so the mourning who read though this marvelous book have their gaze eventually turned from their loss to God who spoke to Job, out of the whirlwind, saying “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? …Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? Or who hath given understanding to the heart? …Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?…Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south? … Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high? Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? He that reproveth God, let him answer it.” (Job 38:4-40:2, passim). And to this Job answered “I am nothing, what answer can I give Thee” (Job 40:4). And in that humility, Job found acceptance, peace, and restoration through the wisdom and power of the Most High.

In psychological terms, a person’s grief is reframed by a new structure that fits the current experience and opens up the possibility for a resolution that grief may have obscured. In the therapeutic context, such re-framing through reading suitable books is referred to as bibliotherapy. According to Jacquelin E. Thurston Dyer and W. Bryce Hagedorn, bibliotherapy has also been successfully utilized to treat issues specifically related to grief and loss (Andrews & Marotta, 2005; C. A. Briggs & Pehrsson, 2008; Hynes & Hynes-Berry, 1986; Joshua & DiMenna, 2000; Pardeck, 1998). Reactions to grief—such as anger, despondency, depression, and helplessness—are all topics that can be related to Scriptural texts especially the psalms of King David, which, when chanted, “fill the soul with philosophy, gradually elevating the soul to those things on high” (Saint John Chrysostom, Introduction to the Psalms, PG 55.538). This is especially true when we let our own longing “be expressed by the Psalmist” (Jerome, Letter to Paula).

There are many potential books that can be read as one works through the process of grief. Perhaps one of the more prominent Christian writers of recent years to address this subject was C.S. Lewis whose own struggle with grief and loss was memorialized in his book, A Grief Observed. In that book, Lewis struggles in writing with his profound sense of loss and heartache, making observations such as this: “Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain. It doesn’t really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist’s chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on” (page 33). In working through his grief, Lewis puts pen to paper to articulate his feelings and his sense of loss, coming to a new understanding.

An ancient example of such an exposition on grief may be found in Saint Ambrose of Milan’s touching work that has come down to us as, “Two Books on the Decease of His Brother Satyrus,” in which he first talks with his deceased brother about their life in common and about his brother’s virtues, remarking “These and other matters, which were then a pleasure to me, now sharpen the remembrance of my grief. They abide, however, and always will do so, nor do they ever pass away like a shadow, for the grace of virtue dies not with the body” (Book 1, 63). He describes how tears so easily well up in his eyes: “For how can my tears wholly cease, since they break forth at every utterance of your name, or when my very habitual actions arouse your memory, or when my affection pictures your likeness, or when recollection renews my grief” (Book 1, 72). Then in the second book, Saint Ambrose turns to the losses of others, to spiritual death and physical death, and above all to the resurrection of the dead, concluding “Holy David desired beyond all else for himself that he might behold and gaze upon this, for he says: ‘One thing have I asked of the Lord that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, and see the pleasure of the Lord.’ It is a pleasure to believe this, a joy to hope for it, and certainly, not to have believed it is a pain, to have lived in this hope a grace. But if I am mistaken in this, that I prefer to be associated after death with angels rather than with beasts, I am gladly mistaken, and so long as I live will never suffer myself to be cheated of this hope. For what comfort have I left but that I hope to come quickly to you, my brother, and that your departure will not cause a long separation between us, and that it may be granted me, through your intercessions, that you might quickly call me who long for you. For who is there who ought not to wish for himself beyond all else that ‘this corruptible should put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality’? that we who succumb to death through the frailty of the body, being raised above nature, may no longer have to fear death” (Book 2, 133-135).

Thus, it seems right that those who grieve heed the words that Saint Augustine heard when he was weeping over his own condition: “Take up and read; take up and read” (Confessions, book 8, chapter 12).  The Saint received this advice as “a command from heaven to open the book” and in doing so, his countenance changed and he found peace with grief changed into gladness. And as impossible as it may seem, those who grieve today may one day be able to say with the psalmist, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness” (Psalm 30:11), “for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27), God Who is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

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