Enjoying Seasons of Consolation

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If you follow this blog you’ll know that my life has had its share of difficulty, discouragement, and suffering. A spiritual word for that is desolation. Desolation can be circumstantial, coming with the death of a loved one for instance. It can also be spiritual, like the “dark night of the soul” described by St. John of the cross. That kind of desolation is where God feels distant and your spirit feels dry. For six years I met monthly with a spiritual director who walked me through some difficult times. But now and then I would go to see her and feel, surprisingly, like things were going well. My children were doing fine, my job was good, my husband was happy, I was at peace. She called those times, consolation.

The problem was, it was hard for me to relax during those times of consolation because I was bracing myself for the inevitable desolation to come. I’d spiral into “what ifs:” What if this happens?  What if the bottom drops out? It’s really hard to relax when you are bracing yourself for the next set of problems. The Bible calls that “borrowing tomorrows troubles” and warns against it, but boy – is it hard to get out of that habit.

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There are so many bad things that could happen, it’s easy to miss the good things when they come. So I wanted to stop and talk a minute to talk about consolation. The Desert Mothers and Fathers talked a lot about consolation and desolation. Both were an expected part of life and both are important. Of course, we generally learn the most from our desert places, the dark times, the desolation. There are things we just cannot learn without facing grief, loss, and pain. But there are also things to be learned from consolation, the good times where you can let down your guard a bit, and rest.

Here are six spiritual disciplines to practice when things are going well:

  1. First, notice that things are going well. Don’t miss it. Savor it, enjoy it, celebrate it!
  2. Force yourself to stay fully present in consolation and don’t allow yourself to start up with the “what ifs.” It is tempting to live in the future. This is the time to stay present.
  3. Talk to people about the good times. Let them know you are happy, that life isn’t all dips and valleys. There is plenty of bad news these days and it’s easy to become a Debby Downer, but in times of consolation, spread the joy. You might help someone who is suffering to know a better day will come.
  4. Be thankful! Sometimes, when things are going well, I feel guilty. Why is so-and-so suffering while my life it going well. It reminds me of the time our favorite antagonist, Judas, got mad at Mary for pouring oil on Jesus’ feet. He said the costly oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus’ famous reply was basically, “the poor will always be with you, but I won’t.” Hard times will always be happening in our world and it is perfectly fine, in fact necessary, to dump out some oil out and celebrate when we can.
  5. It is important to use the times of consolation to process the times of desolation. When you’re in the middle of desolation, it can be hard to see the lessons. But when things have settled down, you can sift through the difficult experiences by journaling and pondering to discover what things you want to keep and what to let go. For instance, you may need to let go of some bitterness or unforgiveness. You may want to keep the surprising strength of character you found during that difficult time or the new skill you had to acquire.
  6. Enjoy Life! It’s not more spiritual to suffer. Joy is spiritual too. Joy, laughter, thanksgiving, gratefulness flow from us during consolation. Let them flow. The world needs that, we need that, it is a gift, open it.

How do you celebrate times of consolation? Has being present during good times been a struggle or does it come naturally to you?

Bathing the Dying: how to care for those experiencing grief and loss

bathing the dying

I work in for a hospice company as the Bereavement Coordinator. This job encompasses my training in both pastoral care marriage and family therapy. Wanna see a family go haywire? Just have a member die. I get to be there when things are falling apart. I get to be a peaceful presence in a less than peaceful environment. I love that.

Most people, when told what I do, reply with something like: “Wow, I could never do that. It would be too depressing.” So far, I’ve found it to be anything but depressing. To me, if feels like holy work. It’s an opportunity to bring the Spirit of Peace to a family negotiating one of the worst experiences of their lives. Now, I’ll admit, I’m still new at this, and thankfully, my agency doesn’t work with dying kids. That might push me past my ability to be a calming presence. But so far, it’s been good.

The other day we were working with a family who lived on the margins. They were poor people, in a downtown weekly motel. This kind of living is one step up from homelessness. Living like this does not endear you to other people and this family had rarely been treated with respect. I happened to open the door of their one-room home and come face to face with a holy moment. Our CNA was washing the hair of the dying woman. Her toothless wasted body was two days from death and yet our CNA was lovingly bathing her, gently washing her hair.

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The beauty of the action stopped me in my tracks, and I finally backed out of the room with the image seared onto my corneas like a Michelangelo painting. Similar images from the life of Christ flooded my vision: The prostitute who anointed Jesus with the tools of her trade: her tears, her perfume, her hair. There was Jesus’ friend, Mary of Bethany, who unknowingly anointed his body for burial with her gift of costly perfume. There were Joseph and Nicodemus, who prepared his body for burial. And finally, the women who went to prepare his body with spices, after the Sabbath, and found him missing.

The Jews knew about preparing a body for burial; they were not afraid of it, but saw it as a loving and holy act, a precious responsibility. The washing of the dead is a ritual of love that most of us unless we work in a funeral home, are totally unfamiliar with. But in many Jewish circles, it is still done. The family prepares the body after death in a ritual called Tahara. The body is washed and wrapped in a plain white cloth, so there will be no attachment to earthly things and no stigma for the poor. For the same reason, the casket is plain, and also must biodegrade so the body can go back into the earth. Then the family and their friends sit “Shiva” for a week of mourning and the bereaved are not expected to attend social events for a year. What wonderful rituals these are to honor the loss of a loved one.

We non-Jews have lost something significant in these rituals. For us, death has become sterilized. We die and our body is removed by men in black suits that come from a mortuary – looking somber. Or worse, if someone dies unexpectedly, like my mother did, and an ambulance is called, a death room can look more like a crime scene with fire trucks, police, flashing lights, and a coroner. We have funerals or memorial services that are over in an hour. If we are lucky, friends bring us food. But after a week or two, we are left alone with our sorrow.

Recently I sat with a man whose wife, his love of sixty years, was dying. Sixty years! How is he supposed to recover from that? He can’t. He won’t. We shouldn’t expect him to. But we can be there to listen to his rage at her loss, to honor his tears, to hear the stories of their wonderful life together. We can be there to bathe the dead, to open a holy space for the Spirit of Peace to come in.

In what ways have you been able to bathe the dying? How has someone bathed you in your times of grief?