What can I give him, poor as I am?
-- Christina Rosetti, "In the Bleak Midwinter"
Lord, we don't get it. Don't ask us to sign on to this. We hope something good comes of it, but we don't see it now. Not right now.
Sometimes when the young ones die, they are still gorgeous. Ravaged inside, they still have their muscle tone, their bone structure and complexions intact, and they lie in their beds like sleeping beauties.
I'm standing in a tiny room stuffed with people. We're gathered, mother and brother and sisters and children, nieces and nephew, children and grandchildren and best friend, and there aren't enough chairs for us. The chairs are stuffed, with padding and with the people who pile on them, some in the laps of others, arms around each other. The air is stuffed with shock, and with anger. They knew it was coming, but they still weren't ready.
It was too big a crowd, too much emotion for the room they had shared with another patient who still breathes, his own knot of loved ones around him. It's too much for this room too, too much for any room. We stand and we sit and we huddle together, and I'm in the middle of them with my hand on his friend's shoulder. It's all I can think of to do.
Lord, don't ask us to understand this.
I come from a church where people don't like to pray, don't like to admit there's anything to pray to. Their great American guru told them to rely on themselves, never to admit they need anything from anybody, never to think they lack what they need to take care of themselves. "Men descend to meet," Emerson said, and left the church. Sneak up on them, catch them on the right mood, caress their egos, and my people might admit that they "meditate" every now and then, about nothing in particular; but to beseech whom they know not for what they cannot name is, shall we say, foreign to their nature.
I don't meet many of our people in my work. I do meet many requests for prayer. Ora pro nobis, they say in their various ways.
Make him better, they sometimes mean, and we cannot do it. If we could cure their sickness, they would not be here.
Make it all right, they sometimes mean. Because they do not think it's right, but think they ought to say so.
This is the Department of Reality, and I will not say it's all right. I will not. I will say that they are loved and deserve to be loved. I will say, as my father's prayerbook does, that God walks in the valley of every shadow, that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, that nothing will be the same now but that a different life is to be found, that you may stumble over it when you least expect, but it will be the life of a person who loved and lost, for grief is the dark lining of joy. But I will not call this event a blessing.
I will not say that God wills young people to die. I will not say it. Those who are angry, let them shout. Those who are broken, let them wail. If they want to climb into the bed and take the corpse in their arms, well, let them, they're in a great tradition -- others have done it before. If God isn't big enough to bear the scandal, then God can go to hell with the other false spirits. But God is by definition -- the only God I'm willing to deal with -- big enough. Prayer brings faith into being, that there is something big enough to hear the truth. If there isn't, we're already dead.
Ora pro nobis. They want me to pray. This isn't about me, or about the fashionable skepticism of my people, or about Criticism so High and Mighty that its legs don't touch the ground. This is life and death. If I didn't plan to get in the trenches, I should long ago have taken off the uniform to nurse my doubts at home. This is for them.
What do I have to give them? the truth. Start with the facts. Give the death its proper name, enumerate the people who are here, give voice to their wound, rage, incomprehension. Call God to account. If there is faith, it means that we act as if there were someone to call out. I know my advocate lives, says Job, so come here, give answer. Not a solution but a response, show that you heard me.
When the Voice spoke from the Whirlwind, it didn't say that everything was all right. It said that Job had been heard. People can bear a lot, if they have been heard.
The good that is to come is not in the event itself. In seven years of this work, I've learned nothing good about death, but I've seen good things come from facing death, one's own or someone else's. "Life is real, Life is earnest," wrote a poet of my people. Death makes life real: otherwise it's just endless rehearsal.
So out of this whirlwind I hope the voice will speak to them. In time.
The sleeping beauty still lies in the other room, not to be revived. I've named the people, and lifted up their loss into the light. And what is the meaning of this? it is still to come, as they learn how to live not in spite of but with the loss. Be our good shepherd, says the prayerbook, walk with us in the valley of the shadow. Our part is to keep walking, and keep calling out.