“He is my God though dark my road
He holds me, I shall not fall
Whatever my God ordains as right
To him I leave it all.
Sweet comfort, sweet comfort
Yet shall fill my heart”
–Sandra McCracken, Sweet Comfort
The past few years have been the most difficult of my life. I’ve been closer to suffering as I’ve aged, partly from my own choosing and partly because of familial circumstances.
In the last three years, I’ve struggled through anxiety, postpartum depression, the stresses of a struggling community, my father’s cancer, my sister’s stroke, my grandmother’s death, and the grief of being too far away from family to offer much practical help at all.
And while I cannot compare my suffering to what those family members are experiencing, I write out my litany because I know what it’s like to need comfort.
I strain through my memories of the past three years and wonder what has offered me solace. I’ve tried many things, hoping in the beginning that comfort meant an end to pain, a relief from grief. I’ve cried through counseling sessions and prayers hoping that when the tears were dry, I wouldn’t feel the pain anymore.
But that’s not comfort, is it? Comfort doesn’t mean we are freed from suffering. It only means we aren’t alone in the depths of darkness.
As a Christian, I want Bible verses to give me comfort. But the truth is, just sitting down and reading the Bible often doesn’t offer me solace.
What has helped is the nearness of friends and family, from their listening and laughter, from the little plastic packages of tissue we share in church, in stolen moments away from our children, in calls so full of tears that the phone must be wiped off afterwards, over cups of tea with our bare feet tucked underneath us on the couch.
I have found solace from watching my children dance to songs that in no other circumstance would I listen to again and again, from singing Sandra McCracken songs so loudly and repeatedly that my toddler knows the words too. From long hours in a chair, writing words–though they are chaotic and messy–that are at least pulling from the deep well of expression that cannot be done any other way. I have said the Psalms and many different kinds of prayers, repeating them as I turned and turned a Franciscan rosary in one hand while I pushed my toddler in a stroller with the other. I have found comfort in the warm arms of my husband.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Bible verses, read alone don’t always offer comfort. The Bible offers a vast, nuanced, and complicated communal story to guide us. Instead of reading it alone, I find peace in reading the Psalms as a call-and-response during worship. I love to say verses with my family as we memorize them together. I hold my sister as she cries through a reading and a sung setting of Psalm 23: “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The longer I’ve lived with grief, the more I’ve come to think of comfort not as an erasure of pain but as the luminous and mysterious lights that pop up in the darkness, like the legendary will-o-the wisps, the ghostly lights that appear to weary travellers. But where these fairy lights of myth lead travellers into dangerous paths, the bright moments of solace are reminders of the hope, peace, joy, and love that moves throughout this mystical kingdom of God, as it dips down into the pool of earth to meet us.
This weekend, our community celebrates Lantern Festival, our version of All Saints Day. We walk the meadow after dark, carrying our lanterns and singing hymns. Then we stand around a bonfire, tossing sticks in, speaking the names of our loved ones who have died.
The light of the fire seems to brighten and grows more frequent when we share and speak our griefs with one another, when we sing the ancient words of Scripture together, hoping that the Great Shepherd is our luminous guide, gently leading us over green pastures and beside still waters, a great lantern lighting our way.