A Cloud of Sacred Pain
It’s been more than a week since my friend Cheryl Muth died and I’ve been wrestling with that loss. I am grieving, but I’ve found unexpected comfort.
On Monday afternoon I found myself in awe as a thousand people gathered to celebrate Cheryl Muth’s life. I want to live a life like she lived. I want to be better. I want to take risks and make moves because death can come quickly and without warning.
A driver hit Cheryl with his van in the middle of a Sunday stroll. She held on in a coma for two weeks and then passed away. There’s no sense to be made of this.
Beyond being a skilled painter and accomplished nurse, Cheryl was a faithful Christian. A missionary even. At one time, I would have felt comfort in that. Believing what I’d been told about heaven and the waiting arms of her Lord, I would have held up my convictions as an anecdote to pain.
When I hear that Cheryl has died, I feel no comfort. Instead, I recoil at immediate pronouncements of her happy trip to heaven. What I feel are the bare facts of loss. She is gone. Her husband of forty years is now alone. Her fourth grandchild will never meet her. None of us will see her again. Anything beyond this is left to the realm of faith.
It’s not that I have no faith. It’s not that I don’t still believe, somewhere, in life after death. In resurrection. I may. I’m just not sure how to prove to myself or anyone else that I believe any of this. I can tell you that in the face of a tragedy such beliefs bring me no comfort. They may in time. They seem to for others
The morning I read the news I am sitting at my basement office desk. Facebook alerts me to a new message. It is over. She has passed. My coworker sits ten feet away. Without emotion, I say “Oh no. I just got really bad news.” I feel numb. I tell her my friend has died and how it happened. I don’t look at her as I speak. She is kind, but how does one respond? Moments later she has gone upstairs and my Spotify begins to play “Crack the Case” by DAWES.
Those heartbreaking opening swells. That piano transitioning from major to minor. That gentle guitar. My eyes water and I know I can’t stay here. I can’t sit and live life as if nothing has happened. I can’t let myself fall apart either. Not here.
I stop the song and leave my desk. I exit out the back and walk away from 124th street towards a coffee shop owned by a friend. Somewhere to sit. A familiar face. But even there, I won’t be free to break.
I remember that Christ Church sits just a block away. I fumble my way to the front door where I’m greeted by the priest. A friend. He smiles wide and offers me a hug. I smile and start to fall apart in his arms. I just need a place to sit, I tell him. He doesn’t ask questions. He takes me away from the office, through the halls and through the gym and through more halls into the darkened sanctuary. I thank him, wait for him to leave and start to weep until my shoulders shake.
I’m alone here and I feel it. There is no light but the sun streaming in through the stained glass. It’s not okay. This is not okay. I am not okay. I find a box of tissues at the ready. I cry for several minutes. I just let myself cry because I don’t know what else do to. I have nothing left. I didn’t know how much I loved this friend until she was gone and now we are all left with the loss of her and it is not fair.
After several minutes, my sobbing subsides. My eyes clear and I take in the room. Christ Church has been around for over a hundred years. Today this the only safe space I can walk to and let myself unravel. Sanctuary. I’m so grateful for the darkness and the tissues and the coloured light leaking in.
I look towards the empty front altar. I start to picture, in that emptiness, a cloud. A swirling black mass of darkness. It is, I feel, a cloud of sacred pain. The altar fills with it.
In this cloud, I finally feel the touch of God.
He is not calming the storm. She is pulling me into this cloud. This, I sense, is the pain of every person who loved Cheryl. More than that. This is all pain. And here is God.
God is not deflecting the pain. She is not pushing the pain away. He is in the midst of it. Silent, but present. Just like my friend the priest. Silent, but present.
Days later I am standing on the stage for Cheryl’s memorial, playing the most difficult song I’ve ever had to play. I am singing my doubts and the sting of this loss. I’m singing for people in this modern sanctuary who might also need to sit with pain. I am singing to manifest that cloud of sacred pain.
Later in the service, we all sing a hymn together. As I sing along, I have no idea of the tragic origin story of this famous anthem.
According to Wikipedia, It Is Well With My Soul was written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. His own son had died at just two years old. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped him out financially. His tragedies did not end there.
In 1873, the Spafford family had planned a trip to Europe but Horatio had to send his wife and daughters on ahead while he worked out some business complications. While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, their ship struck another vessel and sank. All four of Stafford’s daughters died, leaving only his wife.
Spafford came quickly to meet his grieving wife, travelling the same Atlantic Ocean route. As he passed the place where his daughters had died, Spafford wrote these original lyrics;
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
After the memorial service, a friend asks me how I’m doing and I answer, with all sincerity, that I am well.
I am well because I did not push back the pain and I did not push blindly through my workday. Instead, I followed some calling into that old sanctuary and I wept.
This is, somehow, the closest I’ve felt to God in many months. Maybe years. Held tenderly here, in a cloud of sacred pain.