During the service, I sobbed in the sanctuary.
That Sunday morning, I almost stayed home, lingering at the French press, imagining a second cup of coffee, and thinking of my two children nestled on the sofa with the world on pause.
But out of habit, we hustled to the car and drove to church. As I settled into the wooden pew, my body went into autopilot — ready to sing the hymns with gusto, recite the Nicene Creed, and zone into a meditative trance during the Old Testament reading.
Preparing for the liturgy that I know as well as the lines on my face, I surveyed the friends and acquaintances in the pews at the Cathedral of All Souls. Those pews held couples whose relationships were coming together and others that were coming apart.
Without considering my thoughts as prayer, I sent love to these good people, cherished by the community, faced with the messy complexity of domestic life.
Two pews behind me, a woman sat down with her children. As I glanced her way, I saw that she was completely bald. This was not a radical fashion statement: she had cancer. Shit, I thought, which I recognize as a one-syllable form of urgent prayer.
The Rev. Thomas Murphy, our 35-year old priest with three young children, rose to give the announcements, but I could feel his voice shake even before he spoke. "We just learned that Mason Wilson died," he said.
A retired Episcopal priest, Mason was 89 years old. While frail in the past year, Mason and his wife Prue were parishioners who formed the backbone of the church by welcoming newcomers, passing out nametags, holding weekly vigils for peace.
During the readings, I didn’t try to concentrate on the Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, although I did hear the words: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” The Gospel reading from Luke 16:1-13 told the parable of the dishonest manager, a story difficult to interpret, as it seems to reward deceit.
Thomas began his sermon with a reference to Jeremiah, asking us to remember when we had experienced despair in our lives: “The death of a loved one. The destruction of something foundational in your life. The end of a relationship … What wisdom did you take from your time in the darkness? How did you keep alive? Do you gentle listeners, understand these things?” he asked.
Like many people facing mid-life, I’ve experienced a bit of despair: the loss of parents, a pregnancy, a marriage. And I still don’t understand “these things” or the grave despair of the world around me, from cancer in one person to genocide in one country. As I used my sleeve to wipe the tears from my cheek, I saw friends raising their hands to the edges of their eyes as well.
Thomas continued in what I thought might be some pithy statement about how we find God from grief. But instead, he made a confession that this parable had confounded him. After weeks of agonizing about the sermon, he had only one cogent thought: “All we can do is muddle through.”
All we can do is muddle through. It bears repeating.
At this point, I was still crying, as if given permission to be my vulnerable self, not the mother who makes breakfast at 6:30 a.m., runs four miles by 9 a.m., teaches college until 5 p.m., and becomes a mom all over again.
“All we are looking for is that one word, that one password to allow us to inhabit that room for all eternity,” Thomas continued.
“I believe that word is love. I think Jesus tells parables because he knows he can’t define love for us. It is a word that we can only define by living in the world with others.”
These words are for you, Thomas said, the tired mother, who dragged her kids out of bed to go to church; take heart, have hope. He revealed his own vulnerability as a hyperactive, fast-talking people-pleasing priest, hiding a deep loneliness by remaining in constant motion.
“So I’m not going to explain this parable,” he said.
“It’s enough for us to just show up and to share a meal …. It may be that we don’t need to understand in order to celebrate the created in God’s creation.”
During the Eucharistic prayer, the Rev. Judith Welchel asked the children to come around the table in celebration of Mason Wilson’s life. At least fifty parents, babies, toddlers, and teens crowded around the table as Judith broke the bread and said, “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Throughout the service tears welled in my eyes, as if I had been holding back grief for weeks, waiting for this opening, this invitation. I felt like the entire congregation was holding our collective vulnerabilities before something larger than ourselves.
But what was I grieving? And why was church such a safe place for me to cry?
Skeptics might say that as a perimenopausal woman with a teenage daughter, I’m apt to cry at the slightest provocation, which may be true. But I believe something different happens when we expose our vulnerabilities in a community of faith.
A close friend told me her theory that we are being “seasoned” in church each week, preparing to be broken open in ways we cannot anticipate. So we pray the liturgy, sing the hymns, go through the motions. Yet this seasoning of our spirits prepares us to be tender-hearted, open to prayer working on us.
This makes sense to me. There are so few places where we can bring our raw emotions without a self-conscious need to explain or escape to the nearest bathroom, which happens when we get teary-eyed at work or in line at Home Depot. Perhaps church is one of those last safe havens, where we can cry in public for no reason.
A Southerner by birth and the daughter of an Episcopal priest, my mother always told me that church was the best place to cry. I remember her eyes filling with tears at the beauty of a hymn, the elegance of the liturgy, or the sadness of a season. As a child, I didn’t have to understand. I just had to sit by her side in the pew — and watch her muddle through.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth's Climate.