In the midst of grief, which can last a lifetime (literally), it can be hard to see the beauty of life. When that grief is intense — new and raw — it can be even harder to think that there ever was beauty in life. Yet, death is part of our existence, which means grief is part of our existence, and surely God does not want us to stop seeing the beauty of life.
The French philosopher and convert to Christianity, Simone Weil, wrote often about affliction, which includes but transcends suffering. In an essay entitled “The Love of God and Affliction,” she writes:
“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it. On the contrary, this adds to its beauty. If it altered the movement of its waves to spare a boat, it would be a creature gifted with discernment and choice and not this fluid, perfectly obedient to every external pressure. It is this perfect obedience that constitutes the sea’s beauty.”
In the same way, is life made less beautiful by death? I wrote last week about Jose Saramago’s novel in which death stops for a community and they suddenly discover the importance of death. This does not mean we do not grieve at the death of those we love. Weil understood how deep suffering can go and impact our relationship with God.
The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.Simone Weil
“Affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence there is nothing to love. What is terrible is that if, in this darkness where there is nothing to love, the soul ceases to love, God’s absence becomes final.”
We may feel that God is absent, but to allow ourselves to cease loving because we cannot see God’s presence is an even greater concern. “If the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell.”
Weil teaches us a great deal about grief in these passages. Wondering where God is in the midst of grief is a common response of the grieving. The grieving should not be surprised at this and those supporting them should not try to pound God’s presence into their grief. But grief that does not allow us to see that there is still beauty in life, risks losing the ability to love — the equivalent of hell on earth.
Love comes from God, so even as we cannot always feel God’s presence in our midst, accepting that there is love in the world keeps the soul connected to God. The sea is not less beautiful for its power, but more awe-inspiring. Life is not less beautiful for death, but more sacred.
There will be times in grief when even life cannot look beautiful. Indeed, life itself can be ugly. Still, our ability to love, our need to love, can transcend the ugliness as we see the sacred in others. A grief that does not allow for love will not only lose its sacredness, it fails to honor the sacred life of the one we grieve. The grief becomes egotistical, a life onto itself. Another French philosopher and contemporary of Weil, Jean-Paul Sartre, famously wrote: “Hell is other people.” This comes from his aptly-named play, “No Exit,” which addresses life in a godless world. Sartre is either right or wrong depending on how we handle our grief. If we refuse to love, other people are hell.
But if we do love, if we see the beauty of the sea that also sinks boats, then our grief becomes part of our story of love. A love that recognizes the sacredness of life in others, and the recognition of God as the source of that sacredness.