The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


"Love life and loss," By Lynn Hughes

"Love life and loss," By Lynn Hughes

A friend has invited me to give an Advent talk about spirituality and loss. I guess I’m supposed to know something about that, something others might not know because they haven’t had the experience. I doubt that, really. Most people have suffered losses greater than mine, although mine haven’t been inconsequential. Mine have been self-inflicted, which makes the matter a bit strained. I wonder how it would go if I talked about that: Spirituality and self-inflicted loss. How does one deal with God after shooting one’s self in the foot?

Well, now, wouldn’t that be, uh, different?

Self-inflicted loss is qualitatively different from losses such as the recent loss of one of my students in a motorcycle accident. I didn’t know him well, but I can’t imagine how his parents are coping with this worst of all possible things. One question is different: Parents of dead children don’t ask themselves, “How could I have been so stupid?” Well, maybe. I’ve heard that my student’s motorcycle habit had been fueled by his father’s interest, that it was a significant bond in their lives. But there was no good reason why it had to end in the young man’s death. His father certainly hadn’t taught him to ride without a helmet.

It takes a measure of stupidity to shoot one’s self in the foot. The image is wrong, though, because that kind of thing can be a painful accident. Self-inflicted loss would be more like taking careful aim at one’s foot before pulling the trigger. More of a suicide gesture than an accident. (Of course, some suicide gestures accidentally end in actual suicide.)

Loss is loss, self-inflicted or otherwise, so dealing with grief is part of spiritual and psychological healing. (Takes both.) Self-inflicted loss also might include forgiveness, asking God’s and accepting it, which means forgiving yourself; and then, perhaps, asking it of others, thereby taking the risk that it won’t be forthcoming. I’m not too sure I have any answers for questions that come out of all this. What’s it like to be forgiven? What’s it like to forgive one’s self? What’s it like to live with the unforgiveness of others? What’s it like to accept that level of love when it is offered? I guess I’d have to fall back on faith, because I’m not sure I can give much of an account of these issues from experience.

Maybe that’s where the story-telling comes in. It won’t make sense until I make it part of my story. I seem to have dramatized God’s forgiveness in my first Labyrinth walk. I could not resist that sense of God’s presence, that empowering love. I was ready, apparently, emotionally and spiritually exhausted by angry striving against the mess I’d made of my life and the emptiness that had formed around my walking away from my vocation in the church. Perhaps my behavior so fundamentally changed after that experience because I did forgive myself, or at least began doing so. Maybe I’m still doing it. Maybe I’ll have to do it every day for the rest of my life. Maybe that’s the thorn in my flesh that will keep me honest. Who knows?

The hard part — conversion was easy, by comparison — is making peace with those harmed by my misconduct: The mother of my children and our children. That’s the part that hasn’t become part of the story, and may never become part of the story; or, perhaps that part of the story is the continuing pain and ambiguity in our relationships. I seem to have ceased to exist for them, and for good reason. I have not been part of the fabric of their lives for more than two decades — most of their lives. Uncle Dad. Oh, how I hated that when they were younger. And now? Distant Uncle Dad. I’m a grandfather, now, but not much of one. My oldest of three sons has never brought his family to visit in my home. Distant Uncle Grandfather? I might as well live on Mars.

One of my daughters told her classmates that I had died when I left my family and the priesthood in 1982. It was the only story she knew how to tell, because she didn’t know how else or why I would have left her. Did she think I no longer loved her? Probably, and I suspect she’s not examined that bitterness to this day.

This isn’t a topic I’ve discussed at length or depth with any of my children. Have they “moved on,” in the idiom of popular culture? Apparently, and they seem to have no need of me. I don’t know how to be their father. They don’t know how to be my children. It’s not a broken relationship. It’s deader than a doornail, something else in my life, and perhaps in theirs, that can not be revived.

That’s a kind of loss that may be more common than I thought at first. When family members are alienated from each other there is a sense of loss accompanied by a variety of emotions. It’s loss, though, no matter how you slice it, and I wonder what Christian spirituality has to say about that. I’d have to begin by hearing Christ’s prayer that we all be made one in the same way that he and the Father are one. Is it possible to maintain a spiritual connection with loved ones from whom I am separated by circumstances and emotional distance? How does praying for them — for the relationship — help? Does it? Or is it just wishful thinking? How do we know? Where does it lead? What would healing look like? Is it a form of peace making? Shouldn’t my prayer lead to action? Do I have the courage? Where does that come from?

Does it make more sense to come out of my faith in these matters than out of my guts? Probably. Perhaps I can get a better handle on things in prayer and theological reflection than by trying to analyze myself and my children, who certainly are beyond any analysis I might contrive, because we haven’t talked — and probably won’t ever talk — about these things. So, it’s not just a matter of making more sense. Faith may be the only path I have for getting some purchase on these issues. As for action, I’m still hanging back, afraid of reaching out for fear of rejection. It’s as though I’m in the grip of an Augustinian “not yet.”

Posted by Prodigal + to A prodigal priest at 12/13/2005 04:14:00 AM


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