By W. David O. Taylor
Like many in the A Rocha community, I felt gutted by the news of the sudden death of Miranda, Chris and Susanna in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. My immediate response was a blank mind. I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around the nightmarish accident that had taken place half way around the world. Their death had disoriented me. My feelings were scattered and raw.
As with all such experiences, two things helped me to process my sorrow: conversation with friends and the arts. With the one I was able to feel that I was not alone in my sorrow, that it was in fact somehow bearable rather than unbearable, while with the other I was helped to name my sorrow and to feel my sorrow to the depths.
Having just written a book on the psalms, I was reminded that in the world of the Psalter, the “depths” is a place of depression, darkness and complete helplessness. And it is for that reason that the psalmists repeatedly cry out to God to rescue them from the depths. “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord” (Psalm 130:1). And like the psalmists, we too cry out to the Lord out of the depths.
Listen, God! Please, pay attention!
Can you make sense of these ramblings,
my groans and cries?
King-God, I need your help. (Psalm 5:1-2, The Message)
But in the psalms, it is not just that God is sovereign over the depths, it is that God joins us in that deep place of sorrow and darkness, and in Jesus Christ, he feels with and for us in the depths.
And what artists do is to name “the depths” in a way that helps us to make sense of the seemingly senseless experiences of life. Musicians like Arvo Pärt, in his haunting rendition of Psalm 130, De Profundis, give us a feel for things that we might not be able otherwise to articulate. Painters like Matthias Grünewald name the sorrow in the company of the faithful who might share that sorrow with us.
And as we process our feelings about the death of such beloved people, we could preach a sermon about the loss of our friends—and we desperately need such sermons. But were we to sing a rendition of Psalm 88, as with the eighteenth-century hymn, “To Thee, my God and Savior,” we might know our loss from the inside. We might say, yes, it’s just as intensely, tragically sad as that.
We may find ourselves talking out loud about the awfulness of death, and we will surely need plenty of time to process our feelings. But we could also put Malcolm Guite’s sonnet for the Stations of the Cross on our lips and taste the awfulness in sensory acute ways.
He takes our breath away to give it back,
Return it to it’s birth through his slow death.
We could process our heartache with a pastor or a therapist, and we will certainly benefit a great deal from such conversations, but we might also find great help in reading novels, like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, in order to discover the gift of edited language that gives expression to our un-edited emotions.
In the end, there is no reasoning with death. Death is obscene and absurd. It resists sense. But for the Christian, there is always the hope that death will not have the last word.
And with the help of the artists, like the poets of the Psalter, we may find incalculable help from words that give coherent shape to our incoherent feelings, and from sounds that reorient our hearts to the heart of the Man of sorrows, acquainted with every single one of our griefs.
And for all these helps, I am deeply, deeply grateful.
W. David O. Taylor is a long-time A Rocha friend and the author of soon-to-be-released Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, (Thomas Nelson: 2020), as well as Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts (Eerdmans: 2019) and The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation and the Liturgical Arts (Eerdmans: 2017). He earned his Th.D. at Duke Divinity School and now teaches theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @wdavidotaylor and Instagram @davidtaylor_theologian
[Artwork by Phaedra Taylor]