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Weeping for a Night: Suffering and the Nature of Grief

Eric Miller

Our tears cry out for culture and bear witness to a cosmic homelessness.

Professor of History and the Humanities, Geneva College
August 8, 2016

As I was walking through the woods today, I found myself weeping.

Five weeks ago my uncle Bruce died. In the midst of treatment for leukemia he suffered a fatal stroke. He was 64. Bruce—or “Buster,” as we called him—was an outdoorsman, more at home in the woods than anywhere else, though he also had the gift of being at home anywhere. So perhaps not surprisingly, while atop a ridge overlooking a deep valley, his presence and his absence knifed through me at once.

“How long, O Lord. How long? He looked. He listened. He wept.”

There had been much weeping at the viewing, at the funeral, after the funeral. My cousin and his mother, suddenly without father and husband, put faces I wish I never had to see on the notion of bereavement, their bewilderment and pain registering in a thousand flowing forms—the visceral rejection of a loss that, we must believe, was never meant to be.

Jesus Wept

We read in the account of John, Jesus’s dear companion, that Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35). Did John set down this fact to confound us? To help himself recall his own surprise? After all, Jesus knew that he, in a grand symbolic act on the eve of his own resurrection, was about to return Lazarus to life. Yet Jesus wept, overcome, perhaps, by those beloved faces contorted by grief, twisted in shock, so far from the peace he had made a face to show. Their eyes searched his, peering through tears. How long, O Lord. How long? He looked. He listened. He wept.

The Source of Our Weeping

We weep more frequently now than we used to, scholars and pastors say. The stoicism of yesteryear—think of brave and silent Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s tomb—is of a piece with so much else now gone: placid pop songs, solemn handshakes between father and son, suits and ties at baseball games. Would a weeping Jesus fit in this America past? Did he? Perhaps in the midst of much evident cultural decay we can at least be glad of our present release into a more human way in this sphere of our lives.

But now that tears flow freely, what do they mean, besides loss and pain? Here we enter into another kind of confusion, another form of pain.

It’s the pain not so much of loss as of being lost. It is confusion of the deepest kind, the confusion that arrives when the road ends but the map says it should go on. It is the bewilderment of ignorance in the face of ailment. It is the disorientation of knowing only part of a story.

Yes, we cry now. But what are we crying for?

I can’t help but think we’re crying for a lost pattern, and for some of us, a lost certainty. Which is to say, we’re crying for a culture.

Our Metaphysical Homelessness

This claim sounds odd to us. How can you miss something that’s always there?

We’re schooled by social science, after all, which tends to describe culture as inevitable and invariably present—as constant, amid its shifting forms, as humanity itself. Understood in this way, the term “culture” acts as a neutral description of the spaces that intimately shape us, worlds seen and unseen at once, demarcated by their values, tastes, assumptions, landscapes, words, programs, tools, ways. Where two or three are gathered, we’ve come to see, there a culture forms in their midst.

And there is a large measure of truth in this conception. You don’t have to go from nation to nation to see it; it’s as real as the divide between Ivy U. and State U., between downtown and uptown. We indeed differ culturally, and in ways both finely shaded and archly dramatic. We know this.

“Cultures are only as good as their own—impossibly varied—instantiations of the true, the good, the beautiful.”

But we also know that not all cultures are equal. We know that a culture that fosters genocide is inferior to one that affirms justice. We know that a world that degrades women, or that endangers children, or that destroys ecosystems creates a moral and spiritual space we enter with justifiable fear. Cultures are only as good as their own—impossibly varied—instantiations of the true, the good, the beautiful.

And so, for all the good that has come from our nation’s recent cultural shifts, from increased emotional honesty to deeper respect for human diversity, we also see signs of a lost way, of willed deception, even. In The City of God Augustine writes that “it is a lie not to live as a man was created to live.”1 When in myriad ways cultures enact that deception, they become not cultures so much as anti-cultures, or what John Paul II denounced, with biblical directness, as “cultures of death.”2 When we most need direction, they fail to tell us where we’re going.

And so they abandon us to darkness. It is a darkness that can, in moments of human extremity, evoke tears of a distinctive sort, the tears that bear witness, even unknowingly, to profound metaphysical lostness, to our cosmic homelessness.

And Still, Abundant Life At Hand

As I write, it is Holy Saturday. Tens of thousands of Christians around the world will gather this night for vigils, feeling in their souls the catastrophic darkness that engulfed the world with the death of Christ, that can’t but engulf a world when God dies. Yet as they hear anew the ancient prophecies, these Christians will wait in taut anticipation. They know what Christ’s closest friends on that utterly consequential night could not yet see: that death, far from winning, was being destroyed. That life—real life, true life, abundant life—was now at hand. That where two or three of them gather, there new life will be.

“They know what Christ’s closest friends on that utterly consequential night could not yet see: that death, far from winning, was being destroyed.”

As Christian faith fades as a culture-shaping presence in our nation, it need not cease shaping cultures. New life is among us as we gather in his name. With eucatastrophic force, Holy Week yet thrusts forth into human history, inspiring the structures and sensibilities and visions that can forge cultures of life—above all the culture of life that is the Church. It’s a space where we, acquainted with grief, weep freely. But it’s also a place that teaches us pilgrimage—the way home, out of darkness and into light, where sweet reunion will fill our days. And where the one who wept with us will wipe our tears gently away.