Posted on August 11th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Learning, Philosophy, Test Category, Theology
Tagged with Belief, Creation, Death, Faith, Formation, God, identity, Judaism, morality, questioning, Questions, Scripture, seminary, transformation, Violence, war
The Jewish holy day of Tisha b’Av, which occurred this past Tuesday evening, is the culmination of three weeks of increasingly intense mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temple. At this time we remember all of the loss and destruction we have experienced, both historically and personally. This year, this season of mourning in the Jewish calendar began for me in a yoga class. At the start of this period of grief in the Jewish tradition I was shown the power of embodied communal mourning through ancient Indian postures. It was in this class that I fully understood the capacity we posses to hold all: one day ecstatic joy, the next, heart-wrenching sadness.
My teacher and mentor who leads the class is one of the most practiced and skillful people I know in her ability to translate personal feelings and experiences into a class that taps into universal emotions. Having just learned that the child she was carrying would not live, my teacher was completely and utterly broken apart. The life she had been caring for, nurturing, imagining into existence would never know this world. Knowing that yoga asks us to bring our full selves to our practice, rather than staying home to mourn in private, she resolved to show up and offer up the reality of what she was experiencing as the basis for class.
In a room made up of students, some who had been practicing together for years and others who had entered the studio for the first time that evening, she shared with us the rawness of her loss and sadness. Instead of hiding her pain away or first processing it into digestible portions, she brought it honestly and humbly to the fore. In so doing she allowed each of us explore the dark, destroyed places in ourselves.
In one part of the class, she created a space between the flow of postures and asked us to turn to the person next to us and share one thing that has been hard for us this month, or this year, cautioning us to share only as deeply as we felt comfortable. She instructed us to listen to the person sharing, to hold the space, and not to respond. So often we venture these deep feelings out into the light of day only to have them retreat into hiding once again, scared off by well-meaning consolations. I heard from one student that his uncle had just had a stroke, from another, the severe anxiety that her son is suffering from. I went deeper into the feelings of loss I felt this summer working with the elderly and dying.
The class was structured around the moon salutation. Slow and rhythmic, with postures of bowing head and heart towards the earth, it is a sad, internal flow. In the flood of emotions that came as I covered my head in my hands and folded my body down, I felt how rarely we are given the opportunity to tap into our own grief in a communal setting. I experienced how the presence, honesty, and courage of one person to share their authentic truth, no matter how overwhelming, can allow many others to access the caves and caverns of ourselves that we have become so experienced at hiding away. Embodying the movements of the moon series in the company of others caused tears to stream down my face. I could feel in my body the sadness we were giving expression to: my teacher’s, my fellow students, my people’s, my own.
Then, three weeks later, in a dimly lit room, seated on the floor, the Jewish community of Nehar Shalom shtiebel gathered together in the traditional way to mark Tisha b’Av. Together we chanted the mournful words of the book of Eicha (Lamentations) in the haunting liturgical melody created for this occasion. As we enacted this communal display of grief we remembered not only the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but all of the countless tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. It is traditionally conceived that all disastrous events occurred on this date in years past, from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to the beginning of the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka.
This layering of historical events onto a single day of mourning invites us to add our own personal losses to the sea of sadness and to have our pain held by our community. Channeling our imaginings of the intense despair that was felt when the entire, elaborate system of community, security, and connection to Gd collapsed before our ancestor’s eyes when the Temples were destroyed, we have the opportunity to recall the moments of collapse in our own lives. The moment of falling apart, before it is clear if and how we will ever again be made whole.
When the walls of safety, surety, and meaning crumble all around us and we were left a huddled, terrified creature devastated and forlorn, we need the breath and the heartbeat of our fellow travelers to help us come through to the other side. The feelings of despair, for both our personal and communal losses, can be too intense to endure alone. So we gather as a community to pour out our cries, the sound of each voice acknowledging both pain and perseverance.
It always feels somewhat incongruous to mark this day of devastation in the height of summer. In the Northeast, the trees are fully leafed out, colorful flowers paint the landscape, and we spend our free time jumping into ponds, playing in the sun, picnicking with friends. Despite the period of the three weeks of mourning that lead up to Tisha b’Av, the gears can be sticky as we try to switch from the fullness of summer life to grievous mourning.
Yet, there is something so real and so beautiful about this juxtaposition of extremes. As Parker Palmer writes, “In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other—they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out.” We need both the sun and the moon salutations to mark both the joy and the pain. Perhaps it is the holding of this tension that Tisha b’Av calls us to, that we may increase our capacity to hold the fullness of life and the fullness of death simultaneously. As Parker Palmer concludes, “Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation. But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and heath to every living thing.”
While in the case of my yoga class, the trauma of my teacher created a space for all of us to confront loss we have experienced, the collective trauma of our people marked on Tisha b’Av carves out a time for communal mourning. I saw my teacher enact what is necessary to acknowledge the truth of things falling apart and felt the intangible connection to those around me when we let down our guard in one another’s presence.
To be a spiritual leader requires knowing what it’s like to fall apart yourself. I am not a person who has had to endure much loss and suffering in my life, but I can feel that piece by piece the Universe is giving me the resources to do this work. This summer I spent my days with the sick, elderly and dying learning the work of chaplaincy. This week experienced the ritual Jews have done for centuries to mark devastating loss. This month I moved through the flow of the moon salutation offered by a teacher living through the darkest kind of loss. Through each of these experiences I have increased my capacity to hold the fullness of human emotion. I understand that no matter where we might be today, there will be a point in all our lives when we need the humble sadness of the moon series, when we must conjure up the aching wails of Eicha, when we must collapse in the arms of a friend. Like anything, grieving requires practice. May we each have the opportunity to practice falling apart so that, when the time comes, these experiences are deep within our cells for us to draw on.
Image: Chris Heaton (via Wikimedia Commons)