Today is a day that echoes with loss and grief.It is a morning filed with headlines of unspeakable fear and sorrow as historically catastrophic fires obliterate the overcrowded refugee camps in Greece and rage across the West Coast, leaving over 10% of Oregon's citizens homeless. It is the anniversary of the terrorist 9/11 attacks.
What to do with so much sorrow, so much suffering?
"Fight, flight and freeze" are often named as the three typical responses to deal with traumatic events, but there is a fourth way: create.
My mentor, psychotherapist Francis Weller, has written one of the wisest books I know. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal for the Sacred Work of Grief should be required reading for all of us during this dark time. Over the past fifteen years, I have participated in almost a dozen grief rituals he has led where I have witnessed the powerful effects of people sharing their stories of loss amid a profound weekend ritual that includes community singing, writing practices and altar building. "We are not meant to carry grief alone," Francis always reminds us. "It is too large to digest". We need each other in order for grief not to get "stuck" in our bodies . You can listen to one of Francis's talks on grief here.
The very first thing in a grief ritual is to create a shrine of beauty constructed of pictures and symbols of loved ones woven with candles, flowers, bowls of water, stones, branches and boughs, and other elements of nature. Over three days, we read and write poetry and share letters of remembrance to our lost loved ones. And then, we cry together. For hours we collectively weep the unshed tears, witnessed and held with compassion as we are sung to and sometimes cradled in the arms of strangers who quickly become friends. I have watched time after time as in three short days, people have moved from numbness and abject despair to a sense of connection, intimacy and hope. The transformation I have witnessed over the years with hundreds of participants is nothing short of miraculous. You can learn more about his pioneering work at www.wisdombrdige.org
What I experienced at the Grief Rituals mirrored Dante's teachings. The movement out of Hell is a communal journey, a sense of "we are all in this together".Dante's journey up the Mountain of Hope is a pilgrimage that is woven with the remembrance of ancestors long gone and the commitment to bring hope and light to the generations to come. It is very clear in Purgatory that the often painful process of transformation is only possible when we share it. Without one another's support, we would be lost in Hell, blown about by hot winds ("flight"), locked in brutal combat ( "fight") , or, like the citizens in the lower regions of the Inferno, immobilized in ice ("freeze").
Creating beauty is the first and most essential step in the alchemical process of transformation known to poets, artists and musicians over the centuries. Bach poured his grief over his wife's death into the Chaconne ( performed here by violinist NIgel Armstrong); Beethoven poured his broken hearted remorse into the his late string quartets (listen here to the Cavatina from Op. 133) after his adopted son attempted suicide .
In the coming months, a virtual community will gather online to share the story of how creating beauty became the pathway for Dante Alighieri to move through grief, fear and rage in the aftermath of loss and murderous betrayal in the 14th century The vision Dante created- in which healing happens through community and recovering our lost and forgotten memories of the Good- became the Divine Comedy, described by TS Eliot as the single most important literary work ever created.
Dante's healing vision reached out across the centuries to become a touchstone of hope for those who came after. On Sunday, we will discover how the Divine Comedy became Rodin's lifelong obsession, the source of the three sculptures you see on this page. Orpheus et Eurydice, Danaeid and the Thinker each contain an expression of a story of loss.
We will also discover how Dante's example of creating beauty in the face of grief became the saving model for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The border edge of Beata Beatrix contains the promise of meeting his Beloved again in Paradise. By joining his own grief with Dante's, Rossetti created not just a breathtaking memorial to his wife Elizabeth Siddal: he was able to open a door to personal transformation and become a light for the next generation of artists.
The initiatory threshold to Paradise is to drink of the waters of remembrance- of all the love we have known and all the good we have been given. Dante's Prayer (click here) is a heart opening , Celtic influenced song written by Loreena McKinnett about the Divine Comedy and its creation in the midst of grief. " Please remember me" is the repeated refrain.
There are so many creative ways to remember the ones we love- and we don't have to be Dante, Beethoven or Rossetti to do so. My stepfather died unexpectedly in his sleep six months ago. Because his passing happened the very week that California began its COVID lockdown. there was no opportunity for a typical funeral or memorial service. Instead, my mother took to heart the impulse to honor her husband by doing what he loved most: planting seeds and pruning trees.
This week, in his memory, she has gone door to door with vegetables from her garden and peaches ripe with sweetness, giving them away to her neighbors in his memory. It is a far more fitting tribute for a man who was dedicated to nurturing the incarcerated youth he tutored at a reform school and summer camp than any stone memorial could be. I know that part of what created the bounty from her growing garden these months were her own tears. It is a lesson for us all in grief management: in times of despair, plant seeds of hope, and then give it away to feed the hunger of the world.
Remember to look for the beauty. Even with ash falling from the sky, roses bloom, Even with sirens off in the distance, the owl calls to the hidden moon. Even in the midst of sleepless nights, there may come dreams that will console you.
As a prescription for holding the sorrows of the world, I invite you to take down the memory book of your imagination and see how much kindness and goodness you can recall. And then, when you have the memories --of a word or a gesture given to you in a time of need-- reach out and say thank you to the person who comes to mind. And if you cannot pay it back (because they are gone or unfindable or maybe even unknown), perhaps consider paying it forward instead. Because in a world that is darkening quite literally day by day, we need to be the light. In a world that is teetering on the edge of despair, we need to become the hope. In a country fraught with discord and division, we need to make of our own hearts a place of harmony and of our lives a bridge of peace. But we can only do that when we drink from the well of memory of beauty.