As a young man, Alain Emerson tragically lost his wife of two years. In his memoir, ‘Luminous Dark’, he charts his descent into the valley of the shadow of death and his journey out the other side. Steeped in Northern Irish evangelical Christianity, Emerson tries to reconcile his life-long faith with the blackness of his grief. His writing is honest, sincere and relatable. His observations are profound and his conclusions – that we need to live through the silence of Holy Saturday before choosing to embrace resurrection hope are moving and challenging.
Emerson has a gift for finding the right words to speak into pain. Readable apologetics sits alongside personal narrative, song lyrics, diary entries and prayers. Emerson’s reflection on grief has led him to thinkers who do not grasp for easy clichés. His authority on the subject is strengthened by the diversity of influencers, including his Uncle Philip who says most truthfully: ‘walking helps’. By drawing on the words of others, we realise that the story of grief is both universal and personal: it is a story of our time and all time, a story which will be always with us.
Emerson turns and turns his grief, until it becomes a precious stone from which new light shines with every turn. ‘Luminous Dark’ doesn’t claim to be an exhaustive narrative about loss but a signpost towards hope. Lean into your pain for as long as it takes. Truly lean toward it with your whole self, with whatever is left of your bruised heart. But when it’s time, get up, get moving.
In the months after my own mother died, when my faith seemed inadequate to deal with the depth of the grief and I left the church which we had been attending, I walked. The leafy streets of west Glasgow became my pilgrimage route towards healing.
I was reminded of those days again in the early, strange days of pandemic and social distancing. It seemed like we were all walking through grief. Yet with each step, the sun rose higher in the sky, the leaves unfurled themselves and the birds grew bolder on the path. As I walked past trees I had barely noticed before, I saw the spirits our ancestors saw: the gnarled skin, the open mouths, the knotted brows, the searing eyes. With every step I saw that all the world is alive around us; that we are not alone.
I have no doubt that I will return often to ‘Luminous Dark,’ and yet, at times, it left me restless. I found it a little too male, at times too abstract and too tidy. The God of Emerson’s book has forgotten his feminine side. I don’t say this simply to be controversial. The grieving women of the Bible have much to teach us, often from the sidelines, about how grief, as Emerson says, ‘“opens us up to parts of ourselves we didn’t realize were there.’” In the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, we meet Naomi. A woman known to us at first only through the prism of her great loss. The text suggests that her bitterness has made her almost unrecognisable to herself. But when she arrives home from Moab her friends recognise Naomi the friend, Naomi of Bethlehem. At last, she is seen beneath the layers of grief. The women of the Bible teach us that there is no healing when you grieve alone. You cannot grieve in the abstract.
When we grieve alone, we are only aware of the darkness of the loss. When we bring our grief to someone else, their presence sheds a light in our dark corners. In some of those corners there is only dust and cobwebs. But in other corners are our dreams, our passions: the things that make us rejoice or rage until our belly hurts and our eyes water. As we allow others to hold up a little light against the darkness of our loss, we discover in those other corners a glimpse of our whole selves.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous study on grief has long been misunderstand as a linear journey through pain to hope. And while her work, which focused on the emotions terminally ill patients experience as they process their prognosis, is a helpful framework for understanding the journey of grief –, it doesn’t promise a beginning, middle and end. Emerson systematically marshals the reader along a clear path from protest to pathos, from silence to reorientation. He advocates three pairs of walking companions: journey and friends;, vulnerability and courage; and language and liturgy. This framing is so helpful and yet, in my experience the path through grief is not smooth. Exploring your pain takes a circuitous route through arid deserts and swollen rivers.
For a long time after my mother’s death, I found communal worship very difficult. I couldn’t sing the old songs in this strange motherless land. I couldn’t sing songs of triumph and heaven or of the greatness of God. My voice stuck in my throat, refusing to cross the barricade built of loss and hurt and devastation and a world turned upside down. I mouthed the words for show, nothing more.
As we start to anticipate the slow unlocking of communal spaces after the pandemic, there is much discussion about when churches will be once again open for public worship. More specifically, when we will sing together again. Will we still sing the old songs in this new land? As Emerson, quoting Brueggeman, observes: It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented.
If we learn anything from these last months, it is surely that God doesn’t want our blithe songs or our censored prayers. Like the psalmists, we may need to rage. We may need to sit together in the silent, liminal spaces until, to paraphrase Emerson, grace comes upon us surreptitiously, opening the windows to our soul.
When these strange and locked down days are over, we will heal each other: sitting shoulder to shoulder, sharing food and seeing what we have become through each other’s eyes. But until that day, Emerson has laid a table before us. He has invited us to join a merry throng from CS Lewis to Brené Brown, from Gregory of Nyssa to Anne Lamott and Brueggeman to Blur. And in that company, he encourages us to tell our own story of the valley of the shadow of death: of lost love and disappointments; of choosing courage and, with all the bloody-mindedness and determination we can muster, choosing hope.
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