We all experience loss throughout our lives. It is an inevitable part of the human experience.
In the poem “One Art,” poet Elizabeth Bishop talks about “the art of losing.”
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”
She recommends in mastering this “one art” that one begin with small things: lost keys, or a wasted hour. Move on to larger things: a house, a city, a continent. And, finally, she admits that eventually losing one’s beloved isn’t so difficult – not even a disaster.
“–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
Loss is a guaranteed part of life. You may lose your job, the dog, an estranged family member, a box of photos, the house you grew up in, your wife, your child’s artwork, or even the friendship you thought you’d always have. The important thing is to deal with the loss directly in a way that places it fully in God’s hands – to remove your own ego, and turn it into an opportunity to learn greater trust and reliance on God, and the truth of His unchanging love for you.
Jonah learns about loss
In early October, the story of Jonah was part of the first readings at Mass. Jonah is the reluctant prophet who “rejected his divine commission” to go to Nineveh and ended up in the belly of the whale. It’s a rich story, very illuminating and human in Jonah’s response to what is asked of him and how he suffers through a perceived experience of loss.
After spending three days in the belly of a whale, Jonah is finally on the road to Nineveh. He preaches repentance to the Ninevites, as God commanded. But, he is still pouting.
“Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it, where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade, to see what would happen to the city.”
But God is patient, and he does something nice for Jonah. He makes a gourd plant rise in the night over Jonah’s resting place to provide shade. We learn that, “Jonah was greatly delighted with the plant.” But in a turn of events, God sends a worm to destroy the plant, followed by burning winds, both of which are enough to cause Jonah to say, “I would be better off dead than alive.” To him, loss is death.
A right to be angry?
God responds to Jonah:
“But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry over the gourd plant?”
“I have a right to be angry,” Jonah answered, “angry enough to die.”
“Then the LORD said, “You are concerned over the gourd plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow; it came up in one night and in one night it perished.”
As I read those words for the first time, they went straight to my heart. You are concerned over the plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. Is this not the truth of everything we have? Every single thing in our life is a gift from God – marriage, siblings, a career, a house, a beautiful singing voice, the clothes in our closets. And it could all be gone in an instant.
But the greatest of these gifts, and the only truly permanent one, is His love. You and I have done nothing to earn God’s love, and yet it is the one thing we can never lose.
Turn it over to God
Do you really think Jonah is actually mad enough about a dead plant to wish his own death? It is more likely that he feels the loss of his own sense of control. He is indignant that God will not bend to his will. He has lost something truly good – can’t God see that?
Similarly, there is an underlying sense of self-blame in Bishop’s poem, hidden by the cavalier tone. This makes sense. We are naturally hard on ourselves, and if the person we love moves away, we often feel that we could have done something to prevent the loss.
The only option is to release this sense of control back to God.
The opportunity within loss
On a recent episode of Bishop Barron’s Weekly Homilies podcast, he shared a question he frequently hears from non-believers, which is that, if God exists, why does He allow suffering? Bishop Barron says that among the answers is the fact that it is possible that God will bring good from the bad.
I think of people who lose their house in a hurricane and devote their lives to helping others who lose everything in natural disasters. Or families who lose a loved one to a certain disease and start a foundation to find a cure for the disease.
People like this are able to see past the tunnel vision caused by loss, to a future of hope. Even if you don’t rebuild a city or find a cure, taking the time to be with Jesus in your loss, and building that trust in Him, becomes a profound opportunity for spiritual growth.
Rather than respond to loss with anger and despair as Jonah did, or with flippancy as Bishop does, I believe Jesus asks us to respond to loss with these questions:
- Do I believe I am in control, or is God?
- What is God’s will in this?
- How do I align my will to God’s, rather than asking Him to align to mine?
- Am I willing to forgive, as Jesus has forgiven me?
Our task is to learn to love and accept God’s will, even when its meaning is unfathomable, even when it is, after all, a disaster.
Prayers for letting go
Prayer is essential to overcoming loss. The serenity prayer says, “God, give me the grace to accept the things I cannot change.”
Job, who experienced incredible loss, responded by saying, “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed by the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21) Job is not only able to accept God’s will utterly, but goes on to praise him in the same breath! We could do well to meditate on these words in prayer during our own experiences of loss.
Mary can also understand your loss. There is a devotion to Nuestra Senora de La Soledad, Our Lady of Solitude. Mary is in solitude following the death of her Son, Jesus. Tell her what your own loss feels like.
There are also the simple, wonderful words to pray, “Jesus I trust in you.” You may not trust Jesus in that moment, but I truly believe that praying it nonetheless will get you there. St. Ignatius assures us that in times of spiritual desolation, one must in fact double down on prayer and not let “the enemy of our human nature” use his lies to separate us from the true love of God. Stay the course.
I recently came across this quote from Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman: “God will give us what we ask, or He will give us something better.” I pray for all experiencing loss, that we may receive the grace to believe this, and to live with gratitude to God for all he has given us.
Blessed be the name of the Lord!