“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”~~ Jeremiah 31:15
Reflections of sky and sun in a pool of water.
We crossed the Isthmus of Corinth to the Old City to hike among the ruins of Acro-Corinth. Two famous and sacred springs flow there beneath the renowned Doric Temple of Apollo. Its spare monolithic columns rise above the old city center’s area of commerce and religion. One spring is the Peirene Fountain, the city’s major source of water. It was named for the woman who wept so hard when Artemis accidentally killed her son in a hunting accident that the goddess took pity upon her and turned her into a spring of water. Nearby is a hidden spring of water, sacred to Artemis herself and located underground beneath the ancient Temple of Apollo. Because Artemis was both a protector of youths and the bringer of harm to them, devotion to her cult of “protection” became interwoven with that of the “fates,” mythological beings who controlled the lives and destinies of humankind.
Into this underground shrine and spring, devotes of Artemis would come for protection during childbirth, bring their young children for blessings of protection, and families would come to celebrate the great transitions of life just as we do in our faith communities today: hatching, matching, and dispatching. After invoking the goddess’ blessing, they would sacrifice a living animal. Having appeased the god’s power, the people went off to live their daily lives. A sign in the underground sanctuary said “Do not enter: forbidden—Eight coin fine.” Even today this warning holds true, for we can’t access this tunnel. It has yet to be excavated. It may have led to the hidden chambers for the priests and priestesses of the Artemis cult, it could have been a passage between the spring and the Temple of Apollo, or it could have been the passageway into the rooms for the initiates into the mystery cult of Artemis.
Artemis as “protector” brought prosperity to fields and crops, herds and wild beasts, as well as long life, peace and health to her human devotes (Callimachus, Hymn 3 to Artemis, 3rd C BC, www.theoi.com/olympios/Artemis.hmtl). However, just as she could protect, so also she could bring down, for she was a hunter and her arrows were swift and true. One never knew if today’s blessings would continue on the morrow. Over the years, the Greeks developed a mythological concept of Fate or Moira to further explain their understanding and meaning of life.
The Fates were illustrated as ancient women: one spun the fiber of our lives, one measured the length of the thread, and the last cut the thread with shears to determine the end of our lives. “Moria/Fate brings good and ill to mortals and the gifts of the immortal gods are inseparable” (Solon, Frag. 13, 6th C BC). They didn’t believe in a person’s freedom of will to choose, for they believed a person’s destiny was set at birth (people who believe in astrology and horoscopes are examples of this type of thinking). “But mortals are not free to choose prosperity nor stubborn war, nor all destroying civil strife: Aisa (Destiny), giver of all things, moves a cloud over this land, now over that” (Bacchylides, Frag. 24, www.theoi.com.Daimon.moirai.html).
We all deal with death in our lives. Our own bodies are dying every month: at least our outer layers of skin are, which we shed every thirty-five days. In a sense, we are “new people” about eleven times a year! This loss happens so often that we ignore it until the house needs dusting. However, when we are struck with a great loss, a huge grief, or an inconsolable sorrow, we can become like Peirene weeping and wasting, or Rachel refusing to be comforted. It doesn’t matter what our loss is: death of a child, loss of a breast, demotion at work, disability, terminal diagnosis, loss of limb, death of a beloved pet, divorce or breakup of a relationship—we are blindsided by this event. “It isn’t supposed to happen this way! What kind of God lets these kinds of bad things happen to good people?”
At times like these, we forget that God has experienced first hand the suffering of his Son’s agony on the cross. God isn’t unfamiliar or unaware of the cost of pain and the experience of death. Anything that the Son experienced here on earth was also experienced within the Holy Trinity, which never ceased to be Holy or Three in One. Even when we forget this subtle piece of reasoning in our own pain, and all we want to do is kick the shins of the Almighty or put our boot into his hind parts, God knows that we are consumed with our own suffering and agony. Our anger against God is just a reflection against the circumstances in which we find ourselves: bereft, abandoned, hurting, despairing, and worn out by sorrows.
I think of my cousin Tommy Mac: brilliant, good boy, golden child. Not like his older brother Earl Jr., who would barely get through high school due to his good old boy party ways. Tommy had a full scholarship to a big East college and was going to law school and make his parents proud. The summer before law school, he drowned in a tubing accident on a swift running stream. His parents were in the bedroom to receive visitors, but all they could say was, “Why would God take this one?” I don’t know if Earl Jr. was there also, but if he were, I hope he heard only the grief of his parents speaking. More likely he would have thought, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (Gen 27:36).
I walk into the home of the one who took his own life and left his family devastated. They didn’t know how troubled he was, for they would have helped, or they may have been reaching out, but nothing they could have done would have been enough. Wracked with guilt, they ask, “How could he leave us? Will we see him again?” All I know is that sometimes our “real self” is lost to our “dark self.” This darkness convinces us that no hope exists, no one cares, no help is available, and no life is worth living. The dark self can’t see God, but God can see all things: “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:13-14). Many believe that suicide puts one’s self outside of the love of God, but scripture affirms that “not anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
How do we get beyond the grief that binds us to it or causes us to waste away until we are mere fountains of tears? Some parents make their child’s room into a shrine. This “guest bedroom” is like visiting Graceland or Neverland Valley Ranch. It pays homage to a “star” but it isn’t meant to host visitors overnight, for it is prepared for the return of the King. Others grieve inwardly, and move on, but live within a shroud. They expend their energy of grief in giving back to others in their community, just as Peirene did. Her tears became a fountain of life giving water for the city. Children gathered to play there, women met to share their lives, men gathered to make business deals, and the city thrived. If Peirene couldn’t answer, “Why was my child taken by the goddess?” then the only peace that Artemis could give her was to let her share the gift of life for others in exchange for the stolen death of her son.
Perhaps this is how the ancients came to tell this story to understand how one recovers from a great grief. To give one’s self for others is the greatest gift: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Peirene’s Fountain kept the valley watered, lush and beautiful the year round. Her outpouring of grief gave a blessing of life and beauty to the town. In the hidden and sacred spring, Artemis was worshiped as a protector and savior for the family.
Today we recognize that these waters of life come from one Savior: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37-38). Find a mug, cup, glass, or your favorite drink container. Fill it with your favorite beverage. Sit down with it and begin a page of memories about the person(s) or situation(s) that fill you with grief. If at first all you can do is write their name or the word identifying them on the page, that is fine. Sit with this and drink for a while. As the words come up, write them down. Now is not the time for pretty paragraphs, outlines, or perfect punctuation. Organization isn’t necessary. In fact, if you just write in jotted notes all over the page or in boxes, you can “organize it later.” We are looking for FOUNTAIN FLOWING THOUGHTS—automatic writing, if you will. Let the words flow out of you like the tears of Peirene or Rachel. Later you can put this catharsis to good use. This is your spiritual cleansing experience for the week.