Carrying Grief: November is a time to face our own mortality
I carry in my heart smoldering grief. On most days, I experience the fires of loss that are never extinguished, it seems. November rouses memories of those I buried this past year, both parishioners and strangers. I am also confronted with my own fear of death. This fear is revealed in the many ways. I cling to power, false identity, and making myself look good. I often fear approaching Jesus as remedy for my soul, clinging to my ego. The deep fires of grief are inherent in my life as a priest.
This year has been exceptional in the ways we all carry grief. Our people bear the weight of job loss, of unexpectedly letting go of a parent or spouse to the pandemic. Business closures, teen depression, and career failures, have tested even the strongest families. We carry the weight of their pain. We stand among the fuming fires of what has been, and long to lift hope from despairing ashes.
November claims much in the heart of a priest. The scars of grief seem slow to heal. As we celebrate the closing weeks of the liturgical year, we must take stock of our own patterns of loss. Grief comes from the many unspoken issues we carry as pastors. We often become stuck when we accumulate illusions of power that we think will hide our loneliness. The trappings of priesthood cannot sustain our human and spiritual identity. We all experience the perils of life when we hide our grief behind alcohol, drugs, laziness, pornography, or rage.
November is a time when we are called to become honest with ourselves as we face our own mortality. Sometimes we grieve how our lives have turned out. When we were young, we thought we would make a difference. We thought our theology would change the world. We thought others would support our vocation. We assumed we would become someone special in the church. We thought we would share the perks of belonging among our peers. Sometimes life does not unfold as we wish.
We can also fall into traps when we think our perfection will make others love us. Sometimes we get caught in a web of pleasing others and even trying to copy other people’s lives. Shame and guilt may catch up with us in November. In the end, we are only accountable to God’s tender mercy and forgiveness.
In our stubbornness, we may hold tightly to the way things used to be. We white-knuckle our prayer, our profession, our lives, thinking that if we hold on tight enough, no one will notice our pain. As we pray the Beatitudes, we come to realize that God creates saints from the absolute truth of our human existence. We are all created from love so to love in the world. Saints become saints because they lived authentically on this earth.
We may lose our way when we grasp tightly to these illusions. We die from the inside out, unable to find joy in Jesus Christ. As we learn lessons from the fig tree and from the poor widow, then we see even our small deaths create a space in our hearts for God where his love may find a home. I rely on God to show me how to die to self.
We may easily fear the future. We worry about who will care for us when we are ill as we face our own death. Loneliness is real as we reflect on our mortality. In November, we bask in the truth of God’s care for us in the end. We also learn how to live, minister, and thrive today. We, too, are saints and souls. The tenderness of Jesus calls us into a well-lived life.
I have come to realize that the chaos of grief is a vital part of my ministry. Finally, after many Novembers, I claim grief as gift, a genuine path to relationship with Christ Jesus. This love helps me listen to the marginalized and my own emptiness. I am called to listen to the hearts of those who experience tremendous loss. I am also called to befriend my own longing and soulful grief. Caring for our souls becomes a lifetime of authentic reflection and prayer. It is easy for us to distance our lives from the grief of our people and to neglect our own. We may forget we are human as well.
Printed from The Priest Magazine, November 2021. Published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
Fr. Ron, beautiful, as always. I simply had to cherry pick one of your thoughts as an introductory quote for a piece I’m working on. Peace, good and good health,