“Grief is not a feeling. Grief is a skill.”
~ Stephen Jenkinson, Orphan Wisdom
One of my ongoing assignments as temple keeper for the Black Stone Hermitage is to learn how to create and maintain an appropriate space – artistically and aesthetically, as well as emotionally and spiritually – where deep processes of grief and mourning can take place unimpeded.
Aside from funerals, there are so few places in our culture where it is considered acceptable to grieve deeply. Yet grief is central to our experience, and while we can suppress it consciously for a time, it will nonetheless find its expression one way or another. Because it is so difficult to find a clearing where mourning can take place appropriately, we so often see all kinds of shadow expressions of it going on just beneath the surface.
This applies not just to death, but to losses of many different kinds. We especially need more spaces and rituals for grieving the loss of a marriage or other cherished relationship, and for giving expression to grief that is associated with the pain and ravaged state of the Earth.
There is evidence everywhere of a bone-deep Earth grief that lives just below the façade of our sick culture, while we look the other way, distract ourselves, and keep up the appearance of business as usual. This grief that lives in our bones and flesh is something other than what we would call clinical depression, although depression can be one expression of it. While we can and do feel this sadness on an individual level in our bodies, the source is not locatable within individuals, so if my own experience is any indication, it is futile to try to “cure” it with medication or talk therapies.
Nonetheless, there is a kind of poetic beauty wrapped within the folds of this grief. It’s a harsh and cold beauty, much like that of Skaði. There are sharp edges that can cut and leave scars, yet there are also profound gifts to be found in it for those who have the courage and skill to face the darker side of their life experience all the way to the end, without turning away.
We need to create spaces to simply let this Earth grief run its course, and let it reveal its wisdom at its own pace. This calls for considerable emotional and spiritual skill, and there are no shortcuts. We must learn to walk through utter darkness until we reach whatever lies beyond it. As Stephen Harrod Buhner puts it:
“…the plants speak of the pain of the Earth and the times to come. As you develop sensitivity to hearing them speak you will begin to hear it too. It is important to understand that as human beings we bear a responsibility for what our species has done. The Earth and the plants understand that. For anyone who wishes to become a carrier of sacred plant medicine, the most immediate task facing them is to receive the pain of the Earth.
“In the beginning this is difficult. The strength of what is happening here threatens to overwhelm. But once you overcome this obstacle, once you can hear the pain of the Earth crying and remain balanced, you are playing a significant part in the healing of the Earth. The first task before a healer, whether working with a person or the Earth ecosystem itself, is to receive the pain that is there. How often it is that the primary need is for someone to receive the pain that we each carry, to be heard. […] …we must understand and not hide from the pain of the Earth.”
~ Buhner, Scared Plant Medicine, pp. 55-56
This reminds me that I have a great deal of work to do. “The first task…whether working with a person or the Earth ecosystem itself, is to receive the pain that is there.”
To receive the pain that is there. Yes. As a temple keeper, these are some of my tasks: to bear witness to grief, to bring a Pagan theology of immanence and embodiment to bear upon the mourning process, and to make the Hermitage into a place of incubation where existing pain can be fully received – a space where the necessary underlying processes are understood to possess an indwelling dark wisdom of their own, and are therefore allowed to take place without interference. The deeper the grief and pain, the more difficult it can be to simply bear witness without trying to “fix,” advise, turn away, or smooth things over. That’s why I know I have a lot of work to do: there is immense pain that needs to be received, and while I have always been empathic – even to the point of “compassion fatigue” – it will take a number of strengths I don’t currently possess to do this kind of work effectively at the level that is needed. The intense process of grieving the loss of my once-cherished marriage deepened my compassion for others going through a similar experience, and I now know that was just a start. There will be some in-depth writing to do eventually as well, since there is a dearth of material out there about grief and loss from a Pagan perspective. I will just have to trust that the gods and spirits will guide me to whatever I need to learn the rest.
There is a vivid passage in Peter Kingsley’s In the Dark Places of Wisdom that spoke to me powerfully of what I have been tasked with in creating the Black Stone Hermitage as a dark subterranean sanctuary and place of incubation for processes of grief and mourning. While the passage is focused on illness, I think it applies to grief and mourning as well. In closing, I will quote it here at length, as I have seen nothing else like it anywhere:
“To incubate is just to lie down in a place. But the word had a very particular meaning. Before the beginnings of what’s known as ‘rational’ medicine in the West, healing always had to do with the divine. If people were sick it was normal to go to the shrines of gods…[a]nd they’d lie down.
“They would lie down in an enclosed space. Often it was a cave. And either they’d fall asleep and have a dream, or they’d enter a state described as neither sleep nor waking – and eventually they’d have a vision. Sometimes the vision or the dream would bring them face to face with the god or the goddess…and that was how the healing came about. People were healed like this all the time.
“What’s important is that you would do absolutely nothing. The point came when you wouldn’t struggle or make an effort. You’d just have to surrender to your condition. You would lie down as if you were dead; wait without eating or moving, sometimes for days at a time. And you’d wait for the healing to come from somewhere else, from another level of awareness and another level of being.
“But that’s not to say you were left alone. There would be people in charge of the place – priests who understood how the process worked and how to supervise it, who knew how to help you understand what you needed to know without interfering with the process itself.”