The First Heart to Break
Several years ago, following the tragic death of her fifteen year old son, our Christian Education Director took a leave of absence and spent her time taking long walks with her husband, caring for their daughter, going to the ocean their son so loved, and allowing her grief to unfold.
The season of Lent arrived and she put her hand to creating art. She used scrap pieces of wood in various shapes and sizes and fashioned them into three mosaic crosses. They were of simple design, about two feet high, and set side by side they formed a Lenten display.
On Good Friday she brought them to the church and set them up draped with black cloth, and on the Saturday before Easter came back to transform the crosses with gold and white fabrics symbolizing the resurrection.
During Lent and Easter that year her art was her primary connection with the church and her expression of what little faith she felt she had left. She was unable to come back to work or worship for months, because her grief was too raw.
The crosses remained on display through the fifty days of Easter and as Pentecost approached she said to me, “I think I have an idea for transforming the crosses into a Pentecost symbol.”
So she took the crosses home, and when she brought them back, she set them up on a table covered with fabrics of rich gold, red and earth tones. A light shone through dark openings within each cross and a fan blew on the fabric to create movement.
The whole project from beginning to end felt like it was important to her grief work and her struggle with God, that she needed the safety of symbolically expressing to God her deep pain and sense of loss – not that she hadn’t had those conversations elsewhere, but this was on God’s turf. Her art seemed to say, “Look at the darkness that attends my life now through the loss of my son.”
It is significant that she chose crosses – the instrument of death that took the life of God’s own beloved Son – as the focal point. Maybe this choice was her acknowledgment that God knows sorrow. I do not know. I am not an art critic. I am a lover of God and a lover of people, and while some were made uncomfortable by her art, I did the only thing I could think of to do – I encouraged her to keep on creating, to let her soul speak through her art, to offer her prayers through these physical materials and the work of her hands when words would not easily come.
William Sloane Coffin preached a sermon to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City ten days after his own son’s untimely death. It was a eulogy for his son Alex, who died in a car accident at the age of twenty-four. His words ring true because he was a father whose son beat him to the grave. He claimed, “the one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
Words (c) 2012 Mark Lloyd Richardson