by Loren Seibold
I depart today from the usual concerns of this blog to comment on a matter of faith, but this time in a very personal context. Last Thursday Norma Sahlin, the wife and partner of my friend and fellow FiC blogger Monte Sahlin, died. There is nothing more we can do for Norma, except remember her fondly. Monte, in all ways a good and gentle man, is grieving.
Nearly every religion says that death is not the end. In the Abrahamic religions we picture another life beyond this one, marginally like this one but immeasurably better. In the non-theistic religions each life gets somehow folded back into a collective consciousness. In yet other cultures, the ancestors remain, watching and advising. But few in human history have let themselves believe that death is final. Somehow, we insist, it must continue.
Yet it is a belief honored more in breach than observance. What we believe, we don't necessarily feel. I have never attended a funeral without tears. And I hope I never shall. Religions mistake when they speak as though this life means nothing, as though it is but an anteroom to… we're not quite sure what. If it is so insignificant, then why do we want so desperately for it to continue? Why do we mourn its end? That Christ stepped down into this life honored it, made it important, perhaps more important than heaven and the hereafter.
Even Paul (himself treading right on the edge of trying to dry tears with a postulate) admits that we must grieve, but hopes that perhaps rumor of a resurrection—a possibility with little empirical evidence—will temper our grief. But not in the moment. Rarely in the moment. The promises of our faith explain, but only after the tears are gone. And even then, even as we intone, "I believe in the resurrection from the dead, and life everlasting," it sometimes seems as though we're trying to convince ourselves by speaking it in chorus. Will it really happen? Can it?
I suspect this is why so many words of comfort are so discomforting, even if true. It is why those of us who attend people at times of loss learn (if we are at all wise) not to explain, not to diminish grief with easy words. There are no easy answers. Even the promise of the resurrection is (in the dark moment) too easy an answer. The best we can do is for those of us who still have traction on this narrow place where we plant our feet, to reach out a hand to those who have, for the moment, lost it.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I believe God reaches with no hands but ours.
I leave you with this anything-but-easy confession from C.S. Lewis, upon the death of his wife, Joy.
"Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
"I tried to put some of these thoughts to C. this afternoon. He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: 'Why hast thou forsaken me?' I know. Does that make it easier to understand?
"Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'
"Our elders submitted and said, 'Thy will be done.' How often had bitter resentment been stifled through sheer terror and an act of love — yes, in every sense, an act — put on to hide the operation?
"Of course it's easy enough to say that God seems absent at our greatest need because He is absent — non-existent. But then why does He seem so present when, to put it frankly, we don't ask for Him?"