(Photo © Daniel G Opperwall; all rights reserved)
Love is often festal. A baby is born to tears of joy, grows, laughs as she is tossed into the air by her father, perhaps marries and feasts at her marriage, cherishes her friends and family, welcomes children of her own. Love as feast looms large in our culture--something celebrated in so much of our art.
Yet, in the world as it really is, there is an ascetic side to love as well--something full of anguish and distance, something that requires endurance. We find ourselves at a distance from a beloved, pining for their presence; such distance may be physical, or just as often emotional or spiritual. Or it may be, most notably, the distance of death. We lose someone too soon and the grief wells and overflows.
It has been just about a year since my brother and only sibling died suddenly and without warning. The grief comes and goes, as one might expect. For many with whom I speak, grief is a problem--something to work through or overcome. And in many ways this is true. One cannot lie on the couch in shock forever. Eventually life must move forward. Yet, in other respects, I have come to see grief not as something to get past, but as something to accept and in a certain way embrace.
Grief, I think, is not so much an experience or emotion of its own, but rather it is the very experience of love itself under certain conditions. Grief is the ascetic side of love--that side that does not feast, but rather waits and suffers and fasts.
We live in a world from which we will all depart sooner or later. Everyone we know will either leave us for good, or we will leave them. There are no exceptions. And that means that if we get into the business of loving people--really loving people--then we will, by definition, also find ourselves in the business of grief eventually. Grief is what love feels like when the beloved is far distant. It begins at the small pin-prick feeling we have when a friend moves away, and grows commensurate with the scope of our love, and the distance of the beloved. This is why death is not the only cause of our grief, but yet it is the greatest--for in death, the greatest distance that we can know is realized. This is why those we love most are the hardest to lose--our love, being greater in our hearts, becomes a greater grief.
As Christians we know that there are no feasts without an accompanying fast, and the greater the feast, the greater too the fast. Ultimately, there is no Pascha without Lent, and Lent is the greatest of fasts precisely because Pascha is the greatest of feasts. There can be no celebration without ascesis because human experience in this world contains no such thing. There is no victory without accompanying defeat, no health without illness, no happiness without sorrow, no festal love without grieving love. In this life, all joy is dyadic with an accompanying pain by its very definition.
So long as I continue to love anyone--including my departed brother--I will have grief, for in this life not all those I love will forever be with me. Grief--love at a distance, love made ascetic--is part of what love is, and so it is a part of what I am. Love, for me, cannot ever again be seen in feasting alone. From here on, while the feasts will also come, there will be an ever-present fasting of grief in my heart. It will grow, in fact, for I will lose others over the years (unless they lose me first). And this fasting, this grief, while it is not happy, not joyful, not festal, is nonetheless beautiful. For to fast, to endure, to suffer for the love of someone is the very essence of beauty. And this is what grief is--its very nature--grief is to suffer for continuing to love someone, having dared to open one's heart in a world in which everyone is a sojourner, and thus from which everyone will depart.
I do not know for certain when I will die, but the odds are that I have several decades left to go. For all those decades, I will fast the fast of grief much of the time. This can seem like a terribly long Lent indeed.
And yet...and yet. Some twenty centuries ago a Galilean mystic proclaimed to the world that this Lent--the Lent of death, and the grief that joins it--while it may be long, will have an end--that the end of the story of the world is not with the fast--not with ascesis alone--but with the Feast, the Feast beyond which there is no compare, the Feast that finally will last eternally without another fast to come. There will be, he claimed, a final resurrection into a Kingdom eternal. And to prove it, He rose from a tomb.
His claims, His rising, are hard to believe and impossible to prove. And yet, without this promise, without the promise that our fasting is all for something--that it is leading us into the feast of the Kingdom--without this promise, both the ascetic love of grief and the festal love that gives birth to it are meaningless. We are lost in grief if we forget that under other conditions that very grief--that very same point of contact with the beloved--becomes and is our festal love itself, the beauty, the joy, the delight. And we are, in turn, lost in hopelessness if we cannot believe that that delight is where the story will really end--not with the fast, as necessary as that may be, but with the Feast, not with grieving love, but with festal love.
To end our grief, we would need to cease to love--a life of utter nihilism. Then, too, to decide that grief is the final experience of love, we would need to give up hope--a life of pure despair. To choose both to continue loving, and also to claim (perhaps wildly) that the feast of love will one day come again--this is to be a follower of the Lord. And this, if nothing else, puts grief into its place, and lets it be what it already is--nothing other than love itself--and so lets it be endured with patience, embraced with humility, even cherished as a fragment of something profoundly beautiful, all in anticipation of the coming day in which the final Feast will be celebrated and we shall be grateful for this long and beautiful fast.
Bring on the Lenten decades, then, Lord. Give me the strength to fast the fast of grief for so long a time. And give me to know that as great a fast as it shall be--that fast of grieving love--so the feast shall be a thousandfold, and eternal in You.