I confess to having stolen the key.
It was a largely unintentional theft. Indeed, I shocked myself by doing it. But, when the moment came to leave my two keys to Thankful Church – the office key and the sanctuary key – I found that while parting with my office key was sad and hard, giving back the key to the church building was utterly impossible. I might as well be asked to leave behind my big toe. Or my right arm. Or my heart. I couldn’t do it.
So I left Thankful today, for the last time, with the church key still clinking on my chain, making a sound as beautiful as the birds that sang to me in the memorial garden, as lovely as the sanctus bells that ring during the Eucharistic Prayer.
Just a few years after my father died (it always comes back to him, doesn’t it?), I thought to myself, so this is grief. It had been with me for a good while by that point. Between the death of my child in my own womb and the slow death of my father as I sat beside him in that room, and in the years that followed those two events, I learned the landscape of grief – or so I thought. I explored every nook and cranny of it. I let it settle into the spaces of my spirit where it would. I learned to carry its weight in my body and appreciate its unexpected gifts to my soul. I discovered how I grew around and into it, how it grew to be an integral and intimate part of me. And I thought, so this is grief. I can do this.
And then, out of nowhere, I was walloped by the brutal injustice that was my experience of racism, sexism and classism in the institution and the wider community of Sewanee. The pain took my breath away – for years. And over the recent past, I have been learning, slowly, how to breathe again, through the pain.
But in the midst of it all, even early on in the process, through the fog of confusion and hurt, I recognized my response to what happened to me as a new kind of grief. And I was amazed by it. Here was the same emotion that I thought I knew so well, that I believed I had such a handle on, only now its measurements weren’t adding up. It was so much different from those first holy experiences of grief. It was the same base emotion, the same material, but this grief was so closely intertwined with the raw redness of rage, the poison of betrayal, the ongoing nature of the infliction of pain, over and over again, by those who refused to see me bleeding, who refused to acknowledge the blood on their own hands.
It would have been easier, better, more comfortable, to classify it as something different, to name it as a new thing. But to do so would have been to lie. This was grief, too. Grief at the wrongness, the callousness, the brokenness of the world – and of oneself, as well.
But three years, many hours of therapy, and an escape route called Austin later, and I have come to a tentative place of healing. I can look back on the horror of it all and say: yes, that was grief too. And I thought, yes, this is how it feels in my body; this is how it will be carried in my heart. So this, also, is grief. Now I’ve got it. Now, finally, I know what grief is.
And then, today, I took off my shoes and stood on the holy ground that is the rose-colored carpet and smooth hard wood that make up Thankful’s sanctuary floor. I lit a few candles at Mother Mary’s feet. I sat in the celebrant’s chair and looked out over the empty pews where the people I have loved dearly have looked their love back at me. I knelt at the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. I stood in the back corner where, for so many Sundays I have waited in those precious moments before the liturgy begins, and I reached out to touch the granite that has soaked up our shared hymns of praise and words of solace and great thanksgivings. And I said my own prayers of gratitude – so much for which to be Thankful – and I said my goodbyes to the place that has held and cradled me these many years.
And, when I went to remove the key from my keychain, I found, to my great surprise, that I could not. And I sucked in my breath and I named the pain: O my good and gracious Lord, this, then, too, is grief.
But how different it is! How new and yet so familiar. Here it is, I can see and feel and touch it. The weft and woof of it. There is no doubt that this is the same material, the one I know so well. This is grief.
But look how it shines! I marvel how it is shot through with love and joy, how it is lit from within by holiness and happiness and hope, by pride – the good kind – in what we have accomplished together and excitement for the new things God’s providence has in store.
But mostly it is grief wound so tightly to gratitude that one cannot be separated from the other. And already I can feel it settling into my soul – along with all the others – making its promise to me that it will blossom and produce its own fruit all in God’s time.
But for now, I still have the key.
For now, I will hold onto this little piece of Thankful and carry it as a talisman, a marker of my identity, a sacrament of my gratitude and my grief – that for one precious season, I got to be a part of that place, those people, those beloved Thankful Ones.