Ritual & Grief: Easter Vigil

Easter what?

On many calendars, today is just “Easter Saturday.” So maybe you don’t know the more formal name I’ve given, but I bet you’ve figured out the sense of it just fine.

We’ve all attended candlelight vigils for victims of violence. Or sat up at night with a sick child, or waited with a friend in hospital. We watched the grieving crowds this week sing Ave Maria as Notre Dame burned. Many of us are keeping watch now with the family of Rachel Held Evans, a brave and perceptive writer whose work builds compassionate bridges between faith and doubt — whose health is suddenly in danger, cause unknown.

A vigil is a ritualized way to witness. It’s a tool, teaching us to sit with the hard stuff, together or alone, and just hold it.

This is a tough lesson for me. I always want to know what I can do. Nothing, often. Just witness.

So I like that in-betweenness of this day: after the explicit permission to grieve on Good Friday, and before the singing and egg hunts and family feasts attendant on Big Christian Holiday #1. It’s the day set aside to keep watch, in fear and in hope. It’s a liminal holiday, and maybe a slightly uncomfortable one. I find comfort in that.

If you read my Good Friday offering*, you know what I was keeping watch for last year. This year I find I’m holding internal vigil, also, for a friend who died unexpectedly, just a couple of weeks ago. And, as ever, for everyone I love, and haven’t lost yet.

A diagonal veil of altocumulus divides day from night on a mid-April morning, just before sunrise. Photo copyright Tara K. Shepersky.

Here’s a thing I’m learning about grief: even when a loss is averted, it can still lodge inside me. It can feel like a bomb with an invisible timer. Like an ambush I can’t stop trying to figure out. Also like a slightly pushy reminder: go love your loved ones, go love your life, today.

I’ve found tools that help me live with that unwelcome guest, including letting it know that I appreciate the warning, but this is not an anxiety I need right now. Including, also, welcoming it.

This odd, obscure holiday is a good one to practice that last, to keep watch with your difficult emotions.

I wrote this poem last year on Easter Sunday, actually, struggling with sadness on a day of ritual joy. I wanted more space to just sit with that.

Poems are spaces. I experience them, often, as portable locations,** temporary shelters. I’ll be inhabiting this one again today:

Easter Vigil

We spoke so much today 
about the conquering of death.
While my dear friend is dying. 
While I have fought since I fell in love 
the someday-grief 
of losing my heart's compass. 

I take comfort in my lack 
of understanding. 

Three days are not enough, this year, 
to mourn. I am ready for joy, 
but not ready yet 
to stop crying. So much space 
in our hearts is shaped 
by sorrow.

There is need to shape,
in our practice, sorrowspace.

I am not struggling to reconcile 
my faith. Which is no literal thing. 
Which is a river, if it is anything.

I am only struggling.
Same as you.

*I know I don’t usually post this often. Its Holy Week; I have a lot of feelings and that means I write a lot of poems. I’ll go back to the usual schedule after today.

**Coincidentally, April is National Poetry Month, which includes something called Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day. I love this idea, mostly because I find poems (mine, other people’s, random scribbled almost-poem notes) in my purse and pants pockets all the time, and it’s always a slightly startling pleasure to unfold one, and step into it for a few moments.

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