St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Appleton, Wis. (CNS photo/Brad Birkholz)

Suffering and Triumph

Walking among those who grieve and waiting for Jesus’ song of victory

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Father Ronald RaabI often need help with grief. I carry within my body the shards of not only my grief but also the grief of people in ministry. This is why in November the Church recalls the suffering and triumph of saints and holds the memory of souls. In these last days of our liturgical year, the universal Church helps us all make sense of the grief we carry on earth.

As a professed religious priest, I do not have the stability of place or memory since I move from state to state. I enter into people’s sorrow, walk with them to gravesites and then eventually move on to other places. Within these transitions, I look forward to recalling in November their sacred stories and lives. I am also very aware that I need help dealing with my own grief.

I am in my seventh year as pastor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When I made my way from Portland, Oregon, to take this new assignment, I learned something new about my own grief. An art teacher took me by the hand and sat me in a private session where she asked me to tell the story of a person who meant something to me from my previous assignment. Her goal was to begin teaching me how to paint, but also to help me grieve because my sorrow had been so obvious to her in my ministry in this new community.

I described the physical and emotional characteristics of a woman my age who had a rough childhood and who ultimately blamed herself for her tragic life. The art teacher went to a white paper tacked to a wall and with black acrylic paint sketched the woman’s form as clear as day. I sat there in awe as I witnessed one of the people for whom I was grieving.

The art teacher then asked me to describe another person. I verbally portrayed a man who lives in a tent and whose childhood was also particularity horrific. He had been welcomed into that community at an Easter Vigil. He always sat in the back of church with his arms over the pew praying with his head down.

Then the art teacher handed me the brush. I dipped it in water and in black paint. She invited me to approach the white paper and to create an image of him. I painted an outline of him in the last pew within seconds. I stood back from the image with brush in hand and grief in my heart and wept. I sobbed for my loss of moving to a new community, but also for the loss these two people had experienced from childhood abuse and poverty.

My art teacher then told me that everything I needed is inside me, and that I just needed to create art. I had never painted before. I had never used color to express emotion or loss. I had never drawn grief or used art to express my life of ministry and priesthood. She took me by the hand and led me into incredible healing beginning that autumn day.

As priests, we must allow our people to help us grieve. We sit at bedsides nearly every day of those who wait for their last breath. We stand at altars and graves offering consoling words to people who cannot speak the truth about death. Our hearts may become numb ministering in such grief. We may turn our grief into self-violence. Alcohol and anger may become harmful friends. Lashing out at others or severe isolation may overtake us. Pornography is not a life-giving art. Grief hurts our souls and healthy forms of consolation help us be present to loss. Our grief as priests must be turned into beauty, for we believe that death gives way to eternal relationship with Christ Jesus.

Art now is a vital form of prayer for me. Painting and writing both feed me in my daily ministry in ways I could never have imagined. Art releases the tension I carry in my shoulders and the burdens I carry in my soul. I now stand at gravesites understanding my own creative voice that offers consolation to others. Especially in November, I walk among those who grieve and wait for Jesus’ song of victory.

FATHER RONALD PATRICK RAAB, CSC, serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, Colorado Springs, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel in Manitou Springs and Holy Rosary Chapel in Cascade, Colorado.

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