Rev. Peter Mullins, Rector of the United Benefice of Haworth and Cross Roads, writes:-
Among the thousands of requests left on the Prayer Tree in St Michael’s, Haworth, the most frequent refer to cancer and to early death. Given that Patrick Brontë lost his wife to early death by cancer, we have developed a Haworth-branded leaflet about his bereavement to have available by the Prayer Tree.
The Revd Patrick Brontë had only been the parish priest of Haworth for seventeen months when his wife Maria died of cancer of the uterus on 15th September 1821 aged 38.
It had been a long and harrowing illness. There was no pain management such as a modern hospital or hospice can now provide. Maria was also extremely distressed at leaving her six children. Among them, Charlotte was five, Emily was three and Anne was one.
Soon afterwards Patrick wrote these words to a friend:
Tender sorrow was my daily portion; oppressive grief sometimes lay heavy on me and there were seasons when an agonising something sickened my whole frame, which is I think of such a nature as cannot be described and must be felt in order to be understood. And when my dear wife was dead and buried and gone, and when I missed her at every corner, and when her memory was hourly revived by the innocent yet distressing prattle of my children, I do assure you, my dear Sir, from what I felt, I was happy at the recollection that to sorrow, not as those without hope, was no sin; that our Lord himself had wept over his departed friend, and that he had promised us grace and strength sufficient for such a day.
Several things stand out from those words.
First, his grief was so extreme that he could not even explain what it was like. It is rarely helpful to tell someone that we ‘understand what you are going through’.
Secondly, he did not feel that there was anything wrong in expressing that grief (‘to sorrow was no sin’); he remembers that Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. There are cultures in the world where bereaved people are expected to wail, and the modern English habit of trying to hold everything together probably doesn’t help anybody.
Third, it is striking that he doesn’t say: ‘my faith has saved me from feeling extreme grief’. Nor does he say the opposite: ‘this tragedy has destroyed my faith’. Those would be far too simplistic reactions. The much deeper genuine reality for him was that his human ‘agonising’ and his Christian ‘hope’ were woven together in his grief.
His friend would have recognised two quotations from the Bible in what Patrick wrote; these were the threads of hope which he was able to weave around what he said ‘sickened his whole frame’.
The first comes from the earliest Christian writing in St Paul’s first letter to Christians at Thessalonica:
I do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope, for we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
The second came when St Paul wrote later to Christians at Corinth, telling them that several times he had pleaded with God to take acute pain away from him
But God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
at your friend’s graveside;
weep alongside us,
alongside those whose
grief is indescribable;
mix resurrection hope
with our tears;
grant enough grace to us,
enough strength to them.
You may not realise it but I’ve moved to you from an earthquake zone.
We were alerted to this by the earthquake centred on Market Rasen in 2008. I slept through it myself, but many people woke and felt the room moving around them. It was at 5.2 on the Richter Scale, which people guess was about the force of the Lincoln earthquake in 1185 which actually caused the first Lincoln Cathedral to collapse.
What I have only just discovered is that there are earthquakes going on in northern Lincolnshire almost all the time. Only specialised measuring equipment could detect them. Each of these was about nine miles deep, for which compare the less than one mile depth of most oil and gas well drilling. They averaged 1.6 on the Richter Scale, a tiny fragment of the force of the Market Rasen earthquake.
The ground is moving beneath us almost all the time. What we think is solid and unchangeable is in fact always under huge pressure and this often results in small sudden shifts.
I had noticed again that one of the four Gospels tells us there was an earthquake when Jesus rose from the dead. Matthew may be telling us that solid ground of our previous assumptions about the finality of death and about much else suddenly shifted that day.
So my prayer as I move to West Yorkshire is this. I trust that deep underneath everything we assume is desperate or dull, solid or stable, God is still moving in ways we do not yet notice.
My prayer is particularly for those in something like bereavement or depression. It is for those who are stuck in a situation where a debt or a harmful relationship or almost anything else seems unchangeable.
It is for all the English churches where people fear that things do not move as God wants them to.
There is an extraordinary poem near the very end of which it says of God “let him easter in us”. Let the one great earthquake of the resurrection alert us to God’s continued slow hidden work deep within us all the time.