Reflections of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son
“Suffering is the shout of ‘No’ by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers—the shout of ‘No” to nerves and gut and gland and heart to pain, to death, to injustice, to depression, to hunger, to humiliation, to bondage, to abandonment.”(96)
In the author’s own words, Lament for a Son is the “intensely personal” journey of grieving the loss of a son. (5) Every parent’s nightmare became reality for Nicholas Wolterstorff when his 25 year-old son, Eric, died in a mountain climbing accident. This book gives voice to his private and public interaction with death and suffering. It is also his story of surviving, of crying out against the pain and desolation and owning it all.
I read this short but profound book weeks ago and it has taken me that long to begin to digest it. I am only a witness to this type of grief. I have five healthy children, a large extended family, and my parents are pushing 90. Of course, I’ve been angry with God. I’ve felt despair, pain and grieved great losses. This broken world is etched with unavoidable grief, distorted as it is, and we have to live in it. But the loss of a child is too paralyzing to even contemplate.
I began these reflections on New Year’s Eve on the back porch watching the Savannah River flood Lake Thurmond. The red clay common to this part of the country acts as a barrier to the earth beneath and the rainwater rolls off, rushing to flood the lake below. It is now six feet above full pool and even with the floodgates of the dam flowing the water may rise for days. The little lake house from where I write is a refuge for my family. (I swear my husband’s blood pressure drops to almost normal about halfway of the thirty-minute drive from Augusta.) Above the windows that give the water view are a few words from Psalm 23: “He leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul.” Today, though, the waters are rising. They threaten, they do not soothe, but Psalm 23 is still true.
When the waters of life rise and threaten, even destroy and take, what is our refuge? How is the soul restored? Is it…ever? Wolterstorff gives his grief words— heart-aching, gut-wrenching, sometimes anger-driven, despair-embracing, unapologetic words of pain. It is a modern day lament, but not mindless, hopeless and retaliatory. His tone is tender. His words are emotional but thoughtful, sometimes raw but intelligent, and carefully placed. He seeks and gives solace with his words. He manages to simultaneously embrace and be repulsed by this experience of death, not seeking to quickly get over it or move on with life, as some would advise. Choosing to remember, even if painful, he allows his grief to be.
“I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed, I would not.” (26)
Our stoic version of polished up Christianity is uncomfortable with this. Yes, we believe in the risen Christ and the hope of the resurrection, but death is still our enemy in this already, but not yet kingdom state. “Though I shall indeed recall that death is being overcome, my grief is that death still stalks this world and one day knifed down my Eric.” (32) While death is common to man, it is not natural, it is “awful, demonic.” (34) I love that Wolterstorff takes permission to rail against this enemy that produced a solid “neverness” in his life.
“It’s the neverness that is so painful…this endless neverness.” (15)
I fear our polite church society leaves little room for tears and grief. Somehow, we’ve turned the gospel into a barrier to grief. I’ve heard well-meaning people speak of faith and trust in God as if it is readily available in a medicine bottle, a pill we pop as a cure for inexplicable grief. Rx: Take one stoic pill three times a day, smile and swallow with all your emotions. May we ever be convicted of prescribing such a shallow gospel! Don’t get me wrong. We should not live by the whim of our emotions, but we should be willing to enter into the broken neverness of our sisters and brothers, and even our own.
Eric left his imprint, some of his own unique character on this world, his family and friends. Wolterstorff relates to the poet Girard Manley Hopkins’ concept of “inscape” to describe how he must now live without the beauty and uniqueness that was Eric. The son who stamped the world with his imprint now is gone, his unique inscape destroyed by a slip of the foot. Wolterstorff quotes the poet, “And I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.” I wrestled with this a bit. I want to believe inscape lives on, though our bodies go to dust. Is it not simply influence? Significant or small, every person imprints the world. We may forget their influence, but does that mean it does not still influence? We remember the inscape of great moments, great art, and great people as well as the inscape of great pain, great destruction and great evil. Does not the character or inscape of Tolstoy, Renoir, Tchaikovsky, and the Martyrs remain? Does not the inscape of Judas, Hitler, Lenin and Manson,though for only the time God allows, live on? Does not the Christ Crucified? Of course! Perhaps inscape for the image bearers of God is the work of restoration, while inscape for the enemies of God is the work of destruction.
Oh, the countless questions and the personal regrets of wasted opportunities with which one must live when grieving. Woltertorff asks himself if he should “stop this parade of all I wish had been different?” (65) No, he chooses to keep his regrets close for they point him to “…that Great day when we can all throw ourselves into each other’s arms and say, ‘I’m sorry’.” (65) The questions that haunt the human mind in senseless tragedy are unanswerable, but still we search. The author poses question after question but does not answer them. This we must do for ourselves. He invites us to wrestle alongside him.
We search the words of the writers of history, for words make sense of our emotions. Wolterstorff smatters his work with the wisdom of Job, Augustine, Donne, Isaiah, Dermout, Nouwen, T.S. Elliot and the gospels, but most often, he goes to the Psalms. Perhaps they ministered to him when he could not find words as they do for countless others through the ages. Is it possible that in all time and space, we find comfort speaking the ancient but present words of God together in our grief? Does God pool together the tears of all the saints as a “pillow for my heart” the way Augustine describes, lest our hearts fall into the hardness of alone and without? In the Psalms, we cry with God.
I’ve reflected much on the suffering of the person who is Nicholas Wolterstorff, whom I know only through his book. But as I read him, occasionally, I saw faces of friends and acquaintances who’ve lost children flash across his pages–the woman who walks softly now, thin and almost lifeless, years after burying her son, the friend whose marriage may not survive this same grief, the friend who buried not one, but two babies from the same genetic disorder. Unexpectedly, I sometimes saw faces of those grieving the death of a spouse or close friend, permanent physical disability, mental illness, financial ruin, divorce and diagnosis. I saw myself, years ago, prostrate on the floor in my own tears of grief where God put his arms around me and made me to stand again. In writing this book, Wolterstorff invites all who mourn to sit on the mourning bench with him.
“Who then, are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence.” (85)
I am tempted to quote the entire rest of the book here, for my words cannot compete. Read it for yourself and do not be afraid to enter into the questions. What do we do with the seemingly paradoxical reality of the life-giving God who suffered for us, meets us in our suffering and suffers with us, but at the same time allows the suffering of death to be, or perhaps even brings it to be? God is big enough to hear our questions and he is not threatened by them.
“And sometimes, when the cry is intense, there emerges a radiance which elsewhere seldom appears: a glow of courage, of love, of insight, or selflessness, or faith…How can we treasure the radiance while struggling against what brought it about?” (96)
THIS is where I connected with the book, for in that moment long ago, when His love lifted me from the floor of grief, faith was no longer a religion, a theory, a hymn, or words of a poet. The radiance of God in the midst of suffering became a gift that I treasure to this day. It is his gift to mourners, his Sermon on the Mount’s blessed be.
New Year’s Day is coming to a close here on the back porch at the lake. The water is still rising, but it will descend again, just as we know the rise of pain and death will ultimately descend into hell on that Great day. Until then, our union with the Good Shepherd who mourns with us is our comfort because no matter what, Psalm 23 is still true.
Photography courtesy of Alex Williamson.