Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Triduum in a cave

Today, for many Christians, begins the Triduum, the holiest period of the Christian year. Awful night last night — anxiety dreams about my sister and her cancer. Images of me walking on broken glass with bare feet, trying to get back home to Louisiana, but lost. I was in the ruins of an inner-city black Pentecostal church, wandering around as the faithful were gathering to pray and sing, despite their poverty and desperation. I stopped to speak to a large black woman, and told her, “I can’t sing at all, and I can’t pray like you pray.” She just laughed sweetly at me — not making fun of me, but feeling sorry for me.
Then I was on a sort of open bus, barrelling through the darkness in a cold rain, taking me back home to St. Francisville. The bus stopped and left me out in the middle of nowhere. Somehow I made it home, and saw my sister curled up in an easy chair, sleeping, looking like she always did.
I woke up with an anxious “there’s been movement in the Force” feeling. I don’t know if this is an expression of my inner turmoil over Ruthie, and my deep concern for her, and frustration at feeling powerless to help her, or if there is a premonition here (I’ve had those kinds of dreams before). Whatever it is, it’s bad, and I don’t want to be at church this holiest weekend of the year. I want to take my prayer rope and go off into the woods somewhere by myself. Is that bad? I heard the other day from a friend who’s struggling with her little boy’s chronic illness, and she told me, “I know the right answers, but I’m still mad.” Meaning that she has the theologically correct arguments in her head, but that does nothing to settle her soul and to strengthen her heart.
This morning I phoned my folks on the drive in, to see if everything was okay with Ruthie. Nothing has changed, which is to say, things are as bad as ever, though Ruthie’s spirit, incredibly, never falters. All of us who love Ruthie feel so trapped by this, as if our backs were against the wall, and there’s no escape. Nothing to do but to endure, and hope and pray for the best. Still, it’s the powerlessness to help, or to take on some of her suffering through this chemotherapy, that is so agonizing for us bystanders. I feel as if I should be wanting to run to the church, but I find I really want to go into a cave. Meh.
“Stagger onward rejoicing.” Must remember to do that. I keep thinking that when Easter arrives, Ruthie will be well again, and we can all say, “Well, that was hard, but what a great learning experience! OK everybody, as you were.” But that’s not how it’s going to be, and I find the anticipatory joy of Easter utterly alien to me these days. Maybe I think too much.

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bill holston

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:30 am

Well said Rod. I have found that in the midst of heartache, especially about others, such as you are feeling with Ruthie, there’s a real sense of isolation. Its why the Psalms resonate so mightily with me.
I recently spoke to a friend, going through a hard time, “I feel like I should be growing, and learning, but I don’t’
these hard times seem to make more sense in hindsight. Yes, God is fine with your questions, your alienation, your lack of hope. Like Habakkuk’s prayer, He listens to our groaning, this week of all weeks.
blessings my friend
Psalm 88 (New International Version)
Psalm 88
A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
1[a] [b]
O LORD, the God who saves me,
day and night I cry out before you.
2 May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of trouble
and my life draws near the grave. [c]
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
6 You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
7 Your wrath lies heavily upon me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
8 You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
9 my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, O LORD, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do those who are dead rise up and praise you?
11 Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction [d] ?
12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
13 But I cry to you for help, O LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 Why, O LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
15 From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend.

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Caroline Nina in DC

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:32 am

It’s Holy Week. Bad juju is out there this week. It might be worth trying to get in for a last Confession before Pascha, which I think might be really comforting to you. (We’re all praying for Ruthie, as you know, too.)
This week is a time for awareness of suffering and evil like no other.

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Mere Catholic

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:36 am

I read your words as a heartfelt prayer of someone who is struggling through the Triduum in a very concrete way. It reminded me of what Thomas Merton wrote:
“This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, we will never find Him.” (Thoughts in Solitude)
I think you and your family are facing it with profound dignity even if you may not feel you are doing so. God is with you!

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thomas tucker

posted April 1, 2010 at 11:57 am

All I know is what I heard at a funeral Mass last week: it’s all gift. Our lives are not our posessions; they are gifts.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 12:23 pm

We’re praying for you and your family, Rod. Keep running the race.
Hebrews 12:1-3
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

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posted April 1, 2010 at 12:40 pm

I know what you mean. I know how you feel. It’s okay to feel like this. You aren’t supposed to “making the best of it” right now. There is no where to go but through it. There is no-one to help you except God. It isn’t thinking too much, it’s that you feel so accutely. I think it is better to feel it, doubt, scream and wail and cry, than to try to be strong and brave and intellectual about it. I think the growth or what ever it is that comes out of this is God’s job, God’s work in you. It isn’t something you are supposed to do. Remember that song I sent you, Rejoice O Bethany. Martha “wailing her lament”. She is falling on her face before Jesus, even sort of accusing Him of failing her and her brother by saying,”Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died”. I’ve always heard Martha’s anger and sorrow and disappointment in Jesus in this statement. She expected Him to do something for her and Lazarus. And He didn’t (as far as she could see). And the lesson here is that IT IS OKAY to be mad and to express that to Jesus, to wail and to fail. And now, dear friend, now is not the time to be mature and grow and be strong. Now is the time to wail your lament. We, who journey through “this vail of tears” with you and your family, will hold you and support you in spirit.

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Opinion Pole

posted April 1, 2010 at 1:10 pm

I’m praying for you and your family. I lost my brother this October through a medical mistake. There was no chance to say good-bye. He lay in a coma for a week. Though there was little hope that he would recover, I said the “Novena For The Seriously Ill” each evening. At first it was said in anger, then begging, and finally with some acceptance. I’m still working on the acceptance part.
“Great Physician of our souls and bodies, you have mercy on all those who put their trust in you.”

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posted April 1, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Sorry, Rod. The Jesus Prayer is the only thing that helps me when I wake up in the middle of the night, tormented by bad dreams and sick with worry and fear. Hang in there…

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posted April 1, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Rod, holidays (religious and/or secular) are going to feel weird, especially ones we celebrate with family. They did for me while my Dad was suffering from Alzeheimer’s (he said one Christmas Eve in a strange moment of sharp lucidity that he felt like a living ghost). And when my sister, who loved Christmas above all holidays, died on December 16th seven years ago of melanoma diagonosed at stage 4 which quickly had spread to her lungs. I decorated her room for Christmas (she no longer could come downstairs) yet she made me promise I would get a fresh cut fir, as she always had done, to put in the living room. She knew months before then she wasn’t going to make it, I realized it one day when I came in her room and she thanked me for being such a good sister.
There really is no way around it. The issue is one of isolation. People see the superficial side of others’ lives and think, “they” are celebrating Easter, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, whatever, and feel they cannot participate as fully as “they” either because they themselves face family crises, recently are bereaved, are unattached, or recently lost their parents, or never were lucky enough to have children. Holidays can be very cruel in that way. Some people come to rely too much on a Hallmark card version of life, they overlook or fail to prepare for the fact that things aren’t always like that. Some imagine others have it easier, without taking into account the terrifying struggles people around them face with so many life issues. After all, they mostly see others as bystanders, except for their very best friends and family, the real confidants and providers of “safe havens,” those rare places where they can drop the masks and can be themselves. It’s easy to envy bystanders, to think things are going smoothly for them, but in truth, everyone struggles with something at some point in life. Some challenges are more painful than others, watching a sister struggle with stage 4 cancer is one of them, as I know from my experiences with my twin.
So what’s the answer? It depends on the person. Don’t feel pressure. And be patients with advice others give. It’s well meant, even if you find yourself thinking, “you don’t get it.” For some, community helps. For others, the ability to get away and recharge one’s batteries and to meditate or pray alone. For others, specialized online or real world support groups can help. I found relief among friends and family, among them my longtime boyfriend. And most of all, in the knowledge that I was being a good sister at a time when my twin most needed me. Being there for her, being someone she could rely on, that was my job, by task, my assignment, from God or some Higher Power. I tried to keep her spirits up, without minimizing the anxiety and fear she must have been going through but rarely let even me glimpse. You’ll have to find your own center here. My hope is that you will come to understand that just as your sister is a good woman, you are a good man, one who tries to do his best and mostly succeeds, by just being yourself. That means a lot, to your sister and to your family, much more than you may realize now. It’s not a matter of physical proximity. It’s closeness of the heart and how you handle that. Someday you’ll see what I mean, I hope..

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