The Abyss of Grief

Death and Resurrection: Week 2

The Abyss of Grief
Monday, November 19, 2018

My friend and brilliant translator of many mystics, Mirabai Starr, who lives nearby in Taos, New Mexico, has encountered numerous deaths and losses, each cultivating in her a deeper spiritual practice and longing for God. But the death of her fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, in a car crash was “an avalanche,” Starr writes, “annihilating everything in its path”:

Suddenly, the sacred fire I have been chasing all my life engulfed me. I was plunged into the abyss, instantaneously dropped into the vast stillness and pulsing silence at which all my favorite mystics hint. So shattered I could not see my own hand in front of my face, I was suspended in the invisible arms of a Love I had only dreamed of. Immolated, I found myself resting in fire. Drowning, I surrendered, and discovered I could breathe under water.

So this was the state of profound suchness I had been searching for during all those years of contemplative practice. This was the holy longing the saints had been talking about in poems that had broken my heart again and again. This was the sacred emptiness that put that small smile on the face of the great sages. And I hated it. I didn’t want vastness of being. I wanted my baby back.

But I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, “Yes.”

I didn’t do it right away, nor was I able to sustain it when I did manage a breath of surrender. But gradually I learned to soften into the pain and yield to my suffering. In the process, compassion for all suffering beings began unexpectedly to swell in my heart. I became acutely aware of my connectedness to mothers everywhere who had lost children, who were, at this very moment, hearing the impossible news that their child had died. . . . .

Grief strips us. According to the mystics, this is good news. Because it is only when we are naked that we can have union with the Beloved. We can cultivate spiritual disciplines designed to dismantle our identity so that we have hope of merging with the Divine. Or someone we love very much may die, and we may find ourselves catapulted into the emptiness we had been striving for. Even as we cry out in the anguish of loss, the boundless love of the Holy One comes pouring into the shattered container of our hearts. This replenishing of our emptiness is a mystery, it is grace, and it is built into the human condition.

Few among us would ever opt for the narrow gate of grief, even if it were guaranteed to lead us to God. But if our most profound losses—the death of a loved one, the ending of a marriage or a career, catastrophic disease or alienation from community—bring us to our knees before that threshold, we might as well enter. The Beloved might be waiting in the next room.

Reference:
Mirabai Starr, God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Monkfish Book Publishing Company: 2012), 63-65.

Image credit: Autumn Leaves (detail), Koan, 2018.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As I’ve come to understand that life “composts” and “seeds” us as autumn does the earth, I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the hardest of times. —Parker Palmer

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