Outside, coursing in from the west, the amber and violet gloaming has begun.
Dinner is over, and I sit at the piano. Behind me a stream of girlish laughter twirls and dashes through the living room in response to the film music I’m playing, but my own shoulders are weighted, as if a hollow has been carved between them, and lead poured in.
Somehow I’m always startled by the physical heaviness of grief.
In the past two weeks, I have watched Christians say things I did not think it was possible for Christ-followers to say.
I’ve written and second-guessed emails regarding the upcoming school year, closed my laptop, and wept: for the gracious administrators, for our conflicted friends, for the generation of children growing up in such a time, for hearts so hardened that callousness and cruelty are the default response in conversation — and for my own heart, which is often no better in its retaliatory thoughts.
And I’ve barred myself from thinking about paperwork that should have been processed months ago, now delayed by a year and quite possibly more, that would have enabled our family to finally move closer.
I try not to think about what certain widespread sentiments mean for the future of this community, this city, this country. I’ve squashed my own speculation on what ripples my current decisions may cause six months, a year, five years from now. Things might change in any number of directions, of course, and it’s no good inviting imagined troubles in. But tonight, no matter what pragmatic reason and shrewder souls might have to say about it all, my heart feels crushed.
The soundtrack pieces are finished, and my fingers have begun an old, quiet, steadfast hymn. The windows are open, and I suspect that the evening air is carrying the notes outside, but for once I don’t get up to close the sash and click the lock shut.
“Be Thou My Vision” soon carries into “Amazing Grace,” and then “For the Beauty of the Earth.” I think of Hardy’s darkling thrush choosing to “fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom,” and I find myself playing the songs as one who is listening to their poignancy from another home. I play them as beautifully as I know how.
Afterward I close the windows and come into my room, where the daylight is almost gone. I light a candle for the first time in ages, but make no move towards the lamp; the dim illumination from the pale blue twilight and the small, flickering flame is all I would like for now.
Tonight, prayer is a fathoms-deep space of listening: a cry that my voice is insufficient to utter. Even the attempt is too great. The sky fades to silver, pewter rainclouds smudging downward like a child’s thumbprint in the far distance. In the garden the chain of small lanterns begins its nightly glow.
And Psalm 57 comes, unbidden. No — more accurately, I ask for a psalm, and this is the one that comes to the foreground of my thought, and this is what I take up and pray.
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by. . . .
My soul is in the midst of lions;
I lie down amid fiery beasts–
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!
– Psalm 57:1,4-5 (ESV)
As I set the Bible down again, the memory of another candle in the dark comes back.
About fifteen years ago, I struck a match, touched it to a candle wick, and knelt to pray in my college apartment. I was worried that I was somehow not as elated as I should be — as I had once imagined I would be — in the dating relationship that had recently begun. It makes me smile to think of it now, but at the time I was truly perplexed. Shouldn’t I be happier? Did the lack of blissfulness bode ill for this relationship?
Meanwhile, the candle refused to burn. I had trimmed the wick too close to the wax, and the resulting tiny blue glow had to be coaxed with care into a proper tongue of fire. But something happened in the process that I scribbled down later with an amateur (and undeniably dramatic) poet’s pen:
Blue ball of flame, precariously curled
A fetus of fire as yet unfurled—
One breath enough to secure a cold fate,
Leave weary wick crumbling in its wake—
Alone now lights a dim prayer-filled room
Tenaciously spurning its likely doom.
In troubled air the timid question hangs:
Can true love begin sans ecstatic pangs?
Two eyes, cast downward, glance slowly about,
Belying a heart long perplexed with doubt
When, fixed on flame, alerted gaze beholds
The fearless breaking of blue into gold
A Father’s voice speaks to glad heart made bold:
“That Joy is stronger which slowly unfolds.”
Whatever the merits of the rest of the sonnet, the last line has proven true.
The delicately rolled beeswax curls inward as it melts; I watch small spires form along the crown of the candle.
Perhaps this is also a time for a leaner joy — a stronger joy — one that can go through the stifling hours from dusk until dawn because it burns from denser fuel. The delights I’ve had in times of well-being and plenty have lasted me a season and no more, but the truths, beauties, and hopes that have held my attention through hard struggle I keep with me still — joys kindled upon the very taper of grief.
Tonight, then, I remember that the evidence of sacrificial love is abroad, even in these times. That it is good to have a heart alive enough to be stung by thoughtless words born of disordered affections. Thanks be to God for a lasting hope that’s steady enough to help me get up in the morning, and for sorrow that dims my surroundings enough to goad my feet towards the throne of grace. I have taken refuge in a Lord who lends language for my tears, and whose goodness to me through the years has prevented me, though pressed, from being utterly crushed. Because of Him, I’ve known what it is to be struck down but not destroyed.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens;
let Your glory be over all the earth.
The candle trails an ephemeral flourish of smoke.
It will stand here through the coming watches of the day, this small dormant pillar of fire, marking the site of inextinguishable joy given by degrees amid gathering shadows.
Of One who comes to give the oil of gladness instead of mourning.