I wrote this liturgy several years ago when I was just beginning to emerge from a period of ‘prolonged grief’. Prolonged grief is a term that refers to an incompletely or unsuccessfully mourned loss or combination of losses or traumas. According to Judy Tatelbaum, author of "The Courage to Grieve", we are uneducated as to the processes of grief, and this ignorance contributes to the prolongation and incompleteness of our griefs.
There are four kinds of loss over which we grieve 1) the loss of a love object such as the death of a friend or relative, or the loss of a job, home or lifestyle, 2) cumulative loss, i.e., many small losses that eventually add up to a major depression, 3) symbolic loss, any event that causes a diminution of our self-esteem, and 4) anticipatory loss, in which we experience a sense of loss before the loss actually occurs, e.g , before a graduation, or before changing home locations.
Grieving is a part of our transition process from one stage of life to another. Grieving can even be an appropriate response to certain events in spiritual growth as well. ..
...Gerald May writes,
“It is well known that spiritual growth is accompamed by a gradual lessening of attachment to various desires. Concurrently with this lessening of attachments, it is likely that people will go through periods of distress related to decreasing confidence in old assumptions they have held about self, life, and world. All of this represents a loss - not of the things themselves, but of one’s investment in them. Even so, it is a very real loss, and at some level, what is lost will be mourned.”
And in relation to a stage in spiritual growth known as ‘the dark night of the soul’, he writes, “Spiritual growth presents ah increasing spaciousness in which the eternal mystery of God that lies beyond knowable attributes resides. Any glimpse of this spacious darkness can be devastating. At one moment it may seem to be associated with the loss of specific attachments and motivations. At another point it may become manifest as a complete loss of understanding. At still another time, it may arise as the loss of some element of faith. And at yet another, it may feel like the total loss of God. (To) each such ‘noticing’ there is bound to be a psychological response... grief.”
Thus it can be seen that even in the spiritual life, in the liy:es of those seeking 'union' with God, there is loss and grieving. In fact, grieving and loss are an intrinsic part in all aspects of our lives. Judy Tatelbaum writes,
“Life is change. We undergo change, loss and grief from birth onward. Every venture from home, every move, every job or status change every loss of a person, pet, belief, every illness, every shift in life such as marriage, divorce, or retirement, and every, kind of personal growth and change may be cause for grief. These do what Elizabeth Kublerross calls the ‘little deaths of life’. Grief is in fact like a neighbor who always lives next door, no matter where or how we live, no matter how we try to move away. Whether we want to or not, every one of us has to learn to let go, to move forward without someone or something we wanted every much.
“Grief may result from any significant change or loss in our lives. Healthy grief. dramatic and even traumatic as it may be, is a three-stage process. First, it is fully experiencing and expressing all, the emotions and reactions to the toss. Second, it is completing and letting go of your attachment both to the deceased and to sorrow. Third, it is recovering and reinvesting anew in one s own life. For most of us that is a big order. Therefore, it takes courage to grieve.”
Tatelbaum discusses in detail the processes that will help us to grieve normally and successfully. She mentions in particular five special strengths that help us to face death or loss: 1) knowledge: becoming educated about grief 2) emotional maturity, which she defines as the willingness to acknowledge and cope with reality, to experience and express our feelings , 3) having a life purpose that sustains meaning in our lives, 4) having a support-system of people and activities that fill our lives and 5) having courage to face life’s difficulties.
Tatelbaum also discusses the negative effects and signs of incomplete or unsuccessful grief:
“Missing any of the steps in the grieving process may result in unhealthy or unsuccessful grief. Because these stages may take months, unsuccessful grief may not show up until long after the loss.
“The suppression of grief can incapacitate us by causing our emotions to be deadened or distorted, our relationships to suffer, and our functioning to be impaired. There are many signs of unsuccessful or inhibited grief. Sudden personality changes and progressive social isolation after a loss may signify unresolved grief. The bereaved may become apathetic or unusually contained and careful. (They) may control their feelings (to an extreme degree). Anxiety or fearfulness that persists much beyond the loss experience is another sign of unsuccessful grief.
“The other extreme - exaggerating or prolonging our grief years beyond the actual loss is also unhealthy. This occurs when we overidealize the deceased, or hang on to such feelings as sorrow or guilt, or fail to resume our lives fully after a loss. Hidden feelings, too painful to face, are often the underlying cause of prolonged grief. Sometimes our fears of life are harder to face than our grief, which by now is familiar.”
But even unsuccessful. incomplete grieving can finally be resolved. Tatelbaum, in her compassionate way, goes on to add that:
“Since grief and unresolved grief are such pervasive human problems, we need to be understanding, tolerant and aware of the difficulties each of us has in completing the grieving process. There is a false myth that we can never get over important losses, but in reality we can. Even when unsuccessful grief becomes evident, it can be explored and successfully resolved. Unsuccessful grief is usually reversible.”
The liturgy I have written is for people bringing grief to completion, i.e., for people emerging from grief, or experiencing the later stages of grief. In terms of religious ministry, we usually provide persons newly plunged into grief with words, presence, and liturgies intended to solace, comfort and sustain. But the grieving process continues long beyond the funeral, and even in the last stages of grief, or even for persons emerging years later from stages of prolonged or delayed grief, the griever still needs spiritual assistance, but of a somewhat different character. Now the person needs to let go of the grieving itself, to embrace life again and to be open to the possibilities of the new. The images of the Desert Meditation can symbolize the processes of all three of Tatelbaum’s phases of grieving.
Since the purpose of this chapter is to look at images from nature from the viewpoint of LeClerc’s style of interpretation (drawing from the perspectives of life, depth psychology, and in particular the concept of the transcendent function as it is expressed through poetic ‘dreaming’), it is important to say that my intention in presenting this guided meditation is to show how its images sprang from my own personal unconscious (with its roots in the collective unconscious), in the context of my actual life, and how these archetypal yet personally charged images both affected and taught me, moving me through and out of grief and back into my own life-journey and search for spiritual meaning and individuation.
At the same time I hope to show that these images are truly collective, and have been used by others in diverse times and places to connect them in their spiritual quests to their own primordial depths, of which the ultimate depth and Ground is God. Because the images can put us in touch with our primordial depths, and because the ultimate of these depths is called ‘God’, it is proper that these images be named ‘religious’ and be allowed to function spiritually and religiously in our prayer. They function spiritually in an authentic way, and can be interpreted, if desired, in terms of oul christian religion as well. At the same time, these images work simply at the level of symbols from nature, thus combining three levels of meaning - aesthetic, psychologicaI and religious - at once.
Eloi Leclerc writes of the depth dimension of the images of Francis’ prayer:
“We are now in a position to understand better the words ‘(All praise be yours, my Lord), through all that you have made.’ For Francis, creatures were not simply a book in which the writing lay on the surface of things. His communion with them reached their innermost reality, and they in turn spoke to him out of the depths of his own being and through the primordial powers of his soul. This is why his communion with them was also an encounter with the Sacred. If things enable Francis to relate himself to the Sacred, the reason is that they speak to the depths of his soul. In other words, the cosmic mediation has a specifically psychic dimension. Creatures are a language expressive of the sacred because they put the soul in touch ‘with its primordial powers. Creatures are the outward foim of a discourse that goes on deep within (wo)man.”
I do not think it is necessary for the purposes of this paper to enumerate and elucidate the losses and traumas I have experienced - they are no different from those of others. I desire for myself and for others to be healed and freed from any life-inhibition, incapacitation or immobilization which are the effects of unfinished grief. I want all of us to live the life in abundance that Jesus desired for each of us an all - inclusive life, in which grief is a part but not the whole, in which we have both the courage to grieve and the courage to live.
Interestingly, the images that eventually became this liturgy arose within me in praver at a time when I was grieving the loss of old images of God, as well as many contingent attachments to those images. Gerald May has shown that these losses of God-image are every real. At first, the emerging nature symbols seemed non-religious to me, but I soon began making the connections between them and my religion. They became for me new symbolic media for relationship with God. At the same time there were other unfinished griefs, beneath the religious grief, that were clamoring now for attention and completion. I was ‘uneducated’ about grief (as Judy Tatelbaum pointed out above), but the images of this Liturgy began to teach me and to heal me at various levels. I have since found it to have a similar effect on others.
To begin with, the liturgy is set in the desert, where those depressed by the grief of their losses may feel stripped of nearly everything of value, ‘only going through the motions of life’, engaged always in an uphill battle, like a salmon swimming upstream. Judy Tatelbaum writes of a period of prolonged grief in her own life.
“For years a sense of meaninglessness pervaded my life. I went through the motions of living; school, dating, working as a social worker, marriage, divorce, and other new experiences. I saw life as an empty struggle, hard work without much reward. I thought a lot about dying. I wrote poetry and short stories about my hopelessness. I was treading water, getting through somehow, but certainly not relishing my life.”
The period Tatelbaum writes of followed the sudden unexpected death of her very close brother when she was seventeen; she was uneducated about grief then and did not successfully complete the grieving process. A sudden unexpected loss creates a longer than-normal period of shock, characterized by a numbness in which feelings do not arise and are not expressed. Fear assumes especially major proportions following any sudden death, trauma or loss. “Fear is the biggest unrecognized element of grieving: fear for our own survival, fear of what’s going to happen next, fear of losing another loved one, being afraid to love again. One of the first symptoms of this may be fear of moving vehicles. Such grievers will often progressively withdraw to protect themselves from death - but they end up isolated from life; they are in the desert, figuratively speaking. Their lives become increasingly empty; they may cling to the memory of the lost ‘object’ , refusing to accept that it is irrevocably gone, and that they must go forward into a new life.
Tatel baum writes, “There are two major psychological tasks to be accomplished during the mourning period. The first is to acknowledge and accept the truth: that (loss) has occurred and that the relationship is now over. Whether we are aware of it or not, we pay an enormous price for inhibiting grief. Sometimes the price is a loss of our zest for living that may continue for months or even years.”
The second task is to fully express our feelings, but these feelings will not arise as long as the reality of the loss is not faced and accepted. Until this occurs the feelings are kept down below the surface of consciousness, and the only feeling experienced is one of ‘deadness.’ For me, a lack of zest for living is easily imaged in the dryness and stillness of the desert.
In my own life there were areas of incomplete grieving and I felt the ‘desert symptoms’ of dryness and stillness; but when my prayer life began to change too, including now less consolation and more inexplicable silent stillness, I resisted this change with uncommon determination.
In both cases, in relation to certain events in my life, and now to the change in my prayer, I refused to admit or accept the reality of loss and change. So the first step in my, and in any, healing process occurred when I both admitted and accepted that I was indeed in a desert experience and in a state of ‘poverty’, i.e., of loss.
Yet for me there was an immediate and positive result of this acceptance of the desert, and that was the realization that the desert is a realm of light and openness: openness to new possibilities. My attitude began to change. In the stillness in my prayer I found a new dimension of God and a new relationship to God. I began to find life in the same desert where before I was experiencing only dryness and death. As Kahlil Gibran writes,
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.”
In the remainder of this paper I hope to share some of the other gifts I found in the desert, reflecting on each of the Elements that can be encountered there, from various perspectives - archetypal , personal (in relation to the grieving process), and from the Christian tradition.