Do Not be Afraid
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”1
These were the words that marked a house fire and the death of a beloved dog for some folks that I met earlier this year. They are the words I wrote under a dark sky and a full moon, a picture I painted for my friend whose dear mom died on Easter morning. They are the words embodied in the juxtaposition of nature’s beauty and nature’s brutality when I was out hiking and found a freshly killed bird on my quiet trail. They are the words I am still clinging to, in hopes of making sense of a friend’s surreal situation. They are the words attempting to hold back my own fears of losing my family. They are the words seeking to reconcile a disappointed hope of healing—a wife and child, parents and a sister, all bereft of a man who was only thirty-four.
But they are only so many words. They don’t stop the darkness from coming. They don’t staunch the wound that death rips through so many whom I know—the wound that I feel, too. That I fear, too. At some point I have to face the reality of death and the loneliness—the isolation—it brings. And words do not fill the hollowed out people we become when death invades our lives. Those true words lie flat on the page, not shedding a bit of light or colour into our greyness. They lie flat, unable to lend us a hand, to pull us out of the mire of the Fall and its effects.
Words can kill and words can heal; but sometimes words are superfluous—flat-lined rather than life-lines. Brokenness doesn’t fit in neat packages or true-but-trite sayings. Brokenness doesn’t fit well anywhere with all its jagged edges lacerating those who get too close. When I can, I hug my friend who lost her mom this year. I try to just listen. I paint or sing to let the pain out. I cry with my friends—and for them, too. I pray the Kyrie often: Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
But how do I face my family’s mortality—or my own—when I am reminded of the brevity of life? I need to learn to take a page from Wendell Berry’s book:
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my [parents’] lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
“Who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I can grieve alongside. I can grieve during. I can grieve after. And being a human rather than an animal, I can have a forethought of grief. I can “pre-grieve,” as I’ve taken to calling it—but should I? Or can I really even pre-grieve? I don’t know what certain losses will be like until they arrive. I won’t know what I miss until I miss it. Why try to grieve now, when I am called to live now? Why let grieving spoil being with my family and my friends, or the beauty all around me? And let me remind you, you who are in the darkness and that infernal greyness of numbed emotions—there are still candles and stars and beacons of beauty. How do I know? I have seen them. Beauty does not stop the ache, nor does it flip a switch, turning on one’s ability to feel. Yet, beauty creeps in—like a flame along a paper-edge, like ever-rising waters, like the grey light of dawn about to to turn golden and crimson—and somehow it lights a beacon of hope. Hope that one day this topsy-turvy brokenness will be made right.
How do I know? Well, Buechner said it better than I could: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.” That part tends to get left off the quotation, but how are we not to be afraid—in reverent fear of the beauty and in fear of the terror of the world? We do not fear, because the One who made all things good, who made us, who loves us, walks with us. Why would we fear the darkness if the Light of the World is present with us? It isn’t that we aren’t walking in the darkness, its very fingers clawing at us—but, it cannot overpower us or leave us forever in grey-life. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it—cannot understand the Light, nor overcome it.
When words won’t stem the gushing wounds death opens in the heart, I go for a long hike. It doesn’t fix things or bring people back. It doesn’t change the realities that my family and friends experience due to loss. Yet, sometimes along the way, I am changed by the Maker of the wild things. He is the ever-present Healer. He is with us in the darkness, in the flat grey feeling, in the hollow emptiness, in the moments of meaninglessness. Though we may not feel his presence—and though we may forget, “we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him.”3
Sometimes the Word is wordlessly present. Always he walks alongside us—he is with us—even when we can’t feel his presence. “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”