Fairhaven Blog

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Grief, Faith and Culture IV

Charity Gallardo - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When I set out to find a guest blogger to discuss Catholicism, Googling grief and Catholicism brought up the name David P. Deavel. I clicked the links and read some posts and realized that I'd found a gem, a writer who could combine personal experiences with theological information in a post that touched the emotions of readers. When Dave agreed to write for us, I was very excited and today, reading the post, I'm amazed. It's a perfect fit for this series and even if you are not Catholic, if you have lost a loved one, you will feel as if Dave knows just what you've gone through. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

Disclaimer: The religious information contained in these guest blog posts are the beliefs of the guest blogger and in no way reflect Fairhaven's endorsement of any particular religion.

Catholic Grief: A Circle Unbroken by David Paul Deavel

When I became a Catholic at the age of 23 the topic of grief was not particularly on my mind.  At 23 you still half-believe in your own personal physical immortality (particularly if you are a male).  My conversion came as a result of falling in love with the “symphony” of truth found in the Catholic Church—the paradoxical way in which Catholicism incorporated all the disparate elements of truth found in the rituals and theologies of other forms of Christianity and indeed other religions.  One of my mottos was the great English Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton’s observation, “Catholicism is the trysting place of all truths.”

But when my mother developed cancer a year later I was forced to learn that nowhere is this paradoxical character more evident than in the Catholic approach to death and grief.

This paradoxical nature, Catholics claim, comes directly from the very foundations of Christianity.  Jesus of Nazareth, building upon the preaching of the Hebrew prophecies, proclaims to his audience that the Kingdom of God is both here and now and . . . is coming soon.  His resurrection from the dead is the definitive sign that for human beings, death is no longer the last word.  Various cultures and religions have claimed that the soul survives death, but the Christian claim is startlingly new.  It’s not just that you will exist as a lonely soul floating around in a dark, dank land of the dead, as so many of the ancient civilizations believed.  It’s that you will be given a new and imperishable body.  Your dead body, says St. Paul, echoing Jesus himself, is like a kernel of wheat “buried” in the ground.  The transformation that takes place from seed to plant is like that from an earthly body to a heavenly resurrected body.  In view of this reality, St. Paul writes to the infant Church gathered at the Greek city of Corinth, quoting the Hebrew Prophets Isaiah and Hosea: “’Death is swallowed up in victory.’  ‘O death, where is they victory? O death where is thy sting?’”(I Corinthians 15: 54-5).

And even before that marvelous day of the final Resurrection, it is still true, says St. Paul, that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8)—and is thus a good thing.  Thus, one side of the argument, and a strong one at that, echoing down through the centuries, is that death is indeed a good thing, something to be celebrated and not grieved.  The Mass is itself a memorial not just of Christ’s death but also his resurrection.  “We are a resurrection people,” said St. Augustine (354-430) in one of his homilies. The significance of death is that one has entered into the presence of God and is now preparing for the resurrection.

From this side of the picture grief could be seen as something somewhat suspicious, a sign that perhaps one loved the present life more than the heavenly one to come, or perhaps that one loved the deceased more than God himself.  Better to take the attitude of the thirteenth-century saint Francis of Assisi and refer fondly to “Sister Death.”  Yet there was always another side.

St. Paul’s words about death swallowed up in victory were themselves in the context of his own preaching about the completion of the Kingdom of God which Jesus said was both here and coming.  “The last enemy to be destroyed,” St. Paul writes, “is death” (I Cor. 15: 26).  Death is to be destroyed, but unfortunately it isn’t dead yet.  And as it isn’t swallowed up in victory yet, it is still particularly difficult to swallow.  If Catholics profess to experience the reality of Jesus’ resurrection here in this life, we also experience the reality of his death in the deaths of our loved ones.  So grief has a place.  Even if those loved ones “have gone to a better place,” we who are left have not.  And our love for them must enter into the same mysterious sphere as faith—something that we do without the comfort of sight.  Grief is not a sign of superficiality or weakness of faith.  Instead, we mourn in faith because we recognize that the loss is real and deep.

This was no simple theoretical matter, either.  Medieval people were especially attached to the necessity of the imitation of Christ the Lord.  Upon finding his friend Lazarus dead, St. John’s Gospel tells us, “He wept” (John 15:35).  He wept despite the fact that he preached the final resurrection of the dead.  He wept despite the fact that he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead that day if only to temporarily extend his earthly life.  If Jesus the Lord of Life could grieve, his followers reasoned, then so could they.

Yet if grief was a legitimate reaction to death, it had to be a particular kind of grief.  Writing of the resurrection in another place, St. Paul writes that this reality should affect our reactions to our beloved dead, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (2 Thessalonians 4:13).  Catholic grief must be shot through with hope of the resurrection of our beloved.

Of course everything I’ve said thus far could probably describe most Christians and their attitudes.   But what I learned when my mother died of cancer at the, by today’s standards, comparatively young age of 63 was that there were several elements of the Catholic approach to grief that were particularly helpful and that made my experience of grieving my mother slightly different from the grief I endured when losing my two grandmothers and a beloved aunt in the few years before Mom died.

First, the distinctive teachings of the Catholic Church, purgatory and the continuing connection of the dead to the living, made a world of difference.  My Protestant friends complain that purgatory denigrates the work of Christ in saving us, making salvation something Christ doesn’t really accomplish, but simply makes possible.  This theological error, they say, results in a psychological block to our grief:  we can’t say that our loved ones’ suffering is over and thus we cannot really grieve properly since they aren’t really in a better place.  But my friends mistake the theological nature of purgatory.  It is simply the continuing work of Christ in sanctifying (making holy) people whom he has saved, not those people making up for Christ’s shoddy work.   My friends also mistake what it means for grieving loved ones.

What Catholic teaching about purgatory gives the mourner is something to say and something to do.  No one ever knows quite what to say to mourners.  “She’s in a better place” can seem hollow, as C. S. Lewis commented in his marvelous A Grief Observed.   “I’m sorry” is always good.  But what a number of my non-Catholic relatives and friends observed to me was that they appreciated how my Catholic friends could say “I’m sorry” but also, “I’ll be praying for her” or “I’ve had a Mass said for her” or “We’ll pray the Rosary for you.”  It is, my relatives said, a wonderful testimony to the Catholic belief that our beloved dead are beyond our sight, but not beyond our reach.  Purgatory means for grief that when we believe in hope that our loved ones have joined Christ we are also capable, in our union with Christ in prayer, of still helping them along as they are made finally and fully their truest and best selves in Christ.

It’s not just a one-way street.  What many friends often say and half-believe, that our loved ones still “look down” and “take care of us” is something that Catholics believe is literally true.  Saints (those who’ve made it all the way into heaven) and those still being cleansed in purgatory do not pray for themselves: they pray for us.  What details they know of our lives is a mystery nobody can know, but the fact that they still look down on us and pray for us is a comfort.  This strong belief and the help it gave to me was another thing friends and relatives commented on.

Finally, the beliefs about the two-way connection between us and our beloved dead meant something for me as I dealt with my own grief.  They helped me realize the truth that mourning and grief are not something that end with the funeral.  And the practices associated with those beliefs both reinforced this truth and provided a means for living out those beliefs.  Early Christians celebrated the funeral Mass as a memorial and a plea to God to fulfill his promises and “complete the good work that he began” generally on the third day after death.  This was symbolic of the identification of the Christian with Christ who was raised on the third day.  But this tradition was complemented in various other Churches by Memorial Masses variously on the 7th, 9th, 30th, and 40th days after death, as well as on the anniversaries of death.

My kids, even the ones who didn’t know her, still have her as part of daily life. We remember her death every July 25th but also daily at mealtimes when we add to our blessing, “God bless Grandma Deavel. . .and may the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.”  She still loves us, we still love her.  And I don’t have to “get over” my grief any time soon.  I can let it blossom in its complicated way ever further into deeper love and hope.

David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and contributing editor for Gilbert Magazine.


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