Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Getting through a Christmas of grief

“Christmas can be a time of joy but also of tears, memory and prayer. Celebration does not always come easily.”

So describes Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations, a gorgeous full-color art book to help the grieving get through the season.

I wish I had had this book six years ago, when my mother was dying. From diagnosis to death, it took just eight weeks, and it all unfolded in November and December. I was horrified to see degeneration from one day to the next: how could cancer spread that fast?


Read: When it’s not the hap, happiest season of all (2012)


“Advent is a time of waiting,” I wrote then, “but this kind of waiting is the worst of all.” Waiting for the doctor’s phone call, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for your life to irrevocably change—and not for the better.

One thing I hated about that Christmas was the false cheer that seemed everywhere around me, from the hospital hallways to the fast-food restaurants where I would pull through exhausted after a long day of caregiving.

I just could. Not. Think. About. Christmas. There was nothing left in me to give.

The following Christmas, the first without my mom, was little better. It seemed like everything reminded me of her: the Advent calendar we would stuff each day with leftover Halloween candy, the ornaments she saved from my childhood that I was adding to my own tree for the first time.

It was hard. And I think it would have been better if I had been able to spend a little time each day that December with the new book Wounded in Spirit, by David Bannon.

If you like art and find that it feeds your soul, and you are struggling with grief as Christmas approaches, this may be the Advent book for you.

Every day there is a new artist, with one or two examples of their work and several quotations about grief and loss and love. Here’s a two-page spread of a typical day’s meditation.

The liturgical season of Advent begins this Sunday, December 2, but the book is organized by the month of December, with the daily reflections beginning on December 1 and ending on Christmas Day.

Instead, the book focuses on what was going on in the lives of the artists themselves. The answer: a world of pain.

Some of the artists profiled here are famous for their suffering, like Vincent Van Gogh, whose infamous ear mutilation happened the day before Christmas Eve. But many are painters I’ve never heard of, and their stories are heartbreaking. Nineteenth-century French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau lost four of his five children, and his depiction of Adam and Eve discovering the body of their dead child Abel

They lost spouses, friends, and especially children; their art reflects this. The painting of the twice-widowed Francisco de Zurbarán “hints at his sorrow” and points always to kindness between his subjects, which Bannon says is characteristic of those who have grieved many losses. “Studies show that there is often a sense of transcendence or transfiguration in the hearts of the bereaved: in their search for meaning they turn outward, commiserating with the suffering of others.”

Or, as Richard Rohr puts it in one of the book’s well-chosen quotations, “I think your heart needs to be broken, and broken open, at least once to have a heart at all or to have a heart for others.”

This Advent, may you work through grief and beauty simultaneously. God is good.

 

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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