advent journal: solace

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My friend Robert Dilday died in his sleep Saturday night.

He was not old–by that I mean he was only a year older than me. He was ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church on December 14. The picture above is him serving communion after his ordination. He had one Sunday at his new church and then he was gone. He had no medical issues of note. No apparent crisis. The announcement from his church said he died “of natural causes.” He went to sleep and didn’t wake up. I’m still trying to take it in.

The subtitle to David Whyte’s book Consolations is The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I was surprised to find that grief was not one of the words in the book, since it feels, more and more, like an everyday word to me and most of those around me. I began browsing through the index (I have not been reading sequentially) and there, between Silence and Touch was Solace–a word he also used in his subtitle.

Though I know the word solace–especially from hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (“thou will find a solace there”)–I don’t know that I think of it as an everyday word like silence or touch. As I read what the word meant to him, I found these sentences:

Solace is the beautiful, imaginative home we make where disappointment can go to be rehabilitated. When life does not in any way add up, we must turn to the part of us that has never wanted a life of simple calculation.

We were in seminary together and then roommates in Dallas, along with Burt Burleson, for about a year and a half after we finished school. He moved to Washington DC to work for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and I stayed in Dallas as a chaplain. I took a week of my vacation and went to DC. I wandered around the city while he was at work and then we wandered together at night, neither of us on the pastoral career path of most of our classmates. He continued in journalism and ended up as the editor of Baptist News Global. I wandered from chaplaincy to youth ministry to teaching to cooking to editing. From time to time, we checked in with each other, but life had flung us in different directions.

The rise of social media helped us find each other again. A little less than two years ago, Ginger led a group from our church on a Civil Rights History Tour to Richmond, where Robert lived. I knew he was active in working against climate change and fracking in Virginia, along with anti-poverty efforts. He spoke to our group one evening. Later that night, he, Ginger, and I talked late and told stories over drinks, which is when we found out he had decided to pursue ordination in the Episcopal Church, which meant there was a lengthy process. He had resigned from BNG and was preparing to go to Virginia Theological Seminary the following fall, which he did and, as I said, he was ordained a little over a week ago.

I think it is fair to say neither of us thought of life as simple calculation, other than knowing things mostly don’t seem to add up. Like someone dying a week after their ordination for no apparent reason other than life. I was telling someone who did not know Robert about what happened, along with a little of his story, and they responded by saying, “Well, at least he accomplished his goal.”

I could hear they were trying to offer comfort and they meant well. As I sit writing tonight, after reading Whyte, I can see that solace and comfort are not the same thing. The person I was talking to was not wrong; Robert really wanted to be a priest and he made it. But then we’re back to the thing about life not being simple calculation. I am not trying to balance the equation of my grief.

In her poem “Imaginary Conversation,” Linda Pastan writes,

You tell me to live each day
as if it were my last. This is in the kitchen
where before coffee I complain
of the day ahead—that obstacle race
of minutes and hours,
grocery stores and doctors.

But why the last? I ask. Why not
live each day as if it were the first—
all raw astonishment, Eve rubbing
her eyes awake that first morning,
the sun coming up
like an ingénue in the east?

You grind the coffee
with the small roar of a mind
trying to clear itself. I set
the table, glance out the window
where dew has baptized every
living surface.

Nothing we see or digest comes in its pure form–no ray of light, no bite of food, no sound or touch or feeling. All the colors of our lives seep into one another. And so, Whyte says,

Solace is not an evasion, not a cure for our suffering, nor a made up state of mind. Solace is a direct seeing and participation; a celebration of the beautiful coming and going, appearance and disappearance of which we have always been a part. Solace is not meant to be an answer, but an invitation, through the door of pain and difficulty, to the depth of suffering and simultaneous beauty in the world that the strategic mind by itself cannot grasp not make sense of.

I hear echoes of Ecclesiastes in his words:

Who knows if a human being’s life-breath rises upward while an animal’s life-breath descends into the earth? So I perceived that there was nothing better for human beings but to enjoy what they do because that’s what they’re allotted in life. Who, really, is able to see what will happen in the future?

Poet Ellen Bass responds to that unknowing with “If You Knew.”

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

Robert’s death will not be that last one that surprises me. With that in mind, I have spent part of my day texting and calling seminary friends, in particular, to say thank you for their fingerprints on my life. It’s not a bad way to spend a day, maybe even a life. It has brought me solace, which, Whyte says, asks us

Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that is coming to you? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?

I know part of the answer is, not by myself.

Peace,
Milton

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Heartbreaking loss of your friend and all he was on the brink of accomplishing for others in his calling to be a priest. Your words are always enlightening and comforting Milton, even when you’re struggling with sorrow. Maybe especially then. Take care.

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  2. Thank you. Did not know Robert and don’t know you, but about as real a response to loss as I have read in a long time. I am grateful and will be thinking about this for a long time – especially the question in the poem,
    “What if you knew you would be the last?” Peace.

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