This is a précis of a talk I did on Sunday, March 13, 2011, at the Christian Science Church in Winnetka IL.
One of my high school heroes was my senior year Latin teacher, Fr. Paul Distler, S.J. I’m certain he had memorized Vergil’s Aeneid because, although he always held the book in his hand, I never once saw him look at it. One day he wrote a quote from the Aeneid on the chalk board and announced that this was arguably the most profound insight in the entire epic:
“Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”.
I knew what the words meant: “There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind”. Or, more poetically rendered: “Our life has a tearful quality and all that dies touches our soul”. But either way, it had no real meaning for my 17-year-old understanding and I remember thinking that Fr. Distler blew it that day. Now, many years later, I realize, of course, that he was right, as Jesuits tend to be.
The inevitability of change and loss unite us all as human beings. Some who read these words may be mourning the death of a loved one right now. Others may be helping a friend cope with a tragic loss. And yet, all of us experience daily deaths and daily griefs. And even if no loss is touching us at this moment, it is certain beyond any doubt that drop of pain will touch us very soon.
The Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote a lovely poem called Margaret in which an old man sees a little girl named Margaret crying because the autumn leaves are falling. He tells her that she will one day understand that the falling leaves are just symbols of everything that falls, everything that dies, including herself.
“It is the blight man was born for; It’s Margaret you mourn for”.
But what about faith? What about the diverse traditions of reincarnation, resurrection etc.? No account of life after death takes away the loss felt by those of us left behind. Our grieving, after all, is not ultimately about those who have died. It’s our own loss that we are mourning. And every dying reminds us of our dying. In the last analysis, it is Margaret (or Ron or Jane or Joe) that we mourn for.
Another of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, enjoyed seeing a beautiful, young, Russian ballerina dance. But she died suddenly of a disease when she was only nineteen. In the next few months of 1922-23, he wrote some sixty sonnets (The Sonnets of Orpheus) processing this tragic death. He sent one of these sonnets (Sonnet Thirteen in Cycle B) to the girl’s mother and told her it was a summation of all the others. It begins:
“Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre er hinter Dir”.
“Be ahead of every good-bye, as though it were behind you”.
Wow! That’s strong stuff. It reminds me of the Buddhist teacher who said, “This is my drinking glass. It’s already broken. And that’s why I can enjoy how it reflects the light of the sun and the lovely way it conveys water to my lips.” A student who was helping me move dropped a lamp, which shattered to the ground. He looked at me and said, “It was already broken, Ron”. What could I say?
So the best way to prepare for the inevitable grieving that is part of our existence is “to be ahead of every good-bye”, to realize that our drinking glass “is already broken”. Is that morbid? Not at all. Only by getting past denial can we find the truth that makes us free. Only by accepting death can we know life. When my son was born, someone gave me a book on parenting that contained the sentence: “The only way you can protect your child from death is to protect him from life”.
They say that the angels envy us. Nothing changes for them, whereas everything changes for us. And it’s that very precariousness, that fragility, that makes everything human so precious. The opposite of living is taking things for granted. Think of all the people on September 11, 2001 who walked out the door saying: “Good-bye, honey. See you tonight” and unknowingly spoke their last words to their loved ones. And the same thing happened on the day of the earthquake that recently hit Japan. “Good-bye, honey. See you tonight”.
One of my former students, Rick Smith, sent me a beautiful essay called “Beauty and Loss”. He writes that when his little daughter stops asking him for a “piggy-bank-ride” and knows how to say “piggy-back-ride”, he will cry. Yes, Rick, “sunt lacrimae rerum”. My grandson called me “Ba Ba Ron” before he learned to say “Grandpa Ron”. Alas.
Death happens to all of us daily. And yet, it is only through the gateway of grieving and loss that we can enter the broader field of life and joy. Isn’t this the point of the promise of Jesus that it is precisely those who mourn who will be comforted?
By Ron Miller