“You have turned my mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11),” such beautiful, comforting words. I am, right now, in the middle of one of those difficult times in life, a time when mourning and grief fill my heart and my days, and sit alongside the joy of remembrance and the continuing if somehow diminished presence of a deep and abiding gift of love in my life. The current state of my life is the topic for another forum, but, this present experience has caused me to seek comfort in reading, as usual.
It is often a long path to the right words. My search began with questions that arose during my ecumenical experience at Kenyon College’s Beyond Walls program a few weeks ago. The time we spent together in prayer, experiencing morning prayer in many traditions, led me to further research into healing services and traditions in the practice of Judaism. And that research led me to learn that, in much Jewish prayer practice, it is the custom to begin each day by reading the text of Psalm 30 I quoted above: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent (30:11-12).”
That might have been enough for some, but, sometimes, friends, I just can’t let an idea go. This was one of those times. My focus on Psalm 30:11-12 led me to — surprise — a book: Turn my Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times, a collection of Henri Nouwen’s sermons and writings, compiled and edited by Timothy Jones in 2001.
Jones constructed the volume around the theme of “Five Movements through Hard Times,” and in it, we read Nouwen’s thoughts about the dance between suffering and grace, the pain we cause ourselves by holding too tight, the pain we inflict when we make idols of illusory things, the destructive role of fatalism in modern life, our manipulative human spirit, our need for acceptance, and finally, the last and most difficult chapter, “From a Fearful Death to a Joyous Life,” a chapter that I will need to read and read again and read again.
I think that if I were to choose one quotation to sum up the writings gathered here, it would be this: “Life is a school in which we are trained to depart (p. 95).” We may fight that lesson along the way, but we will all eventually complete the course. Nouwen’s words just give us some suggestions for homework along the way that might just make the class a little easier on us.
These years since Nouwen’s death have seen the creation of many of these composite volumes of his writings, drawn from his lectures, sermons, and private notebooks. Most of these compilations, like this one,hold to the promised theme only lightly. It is in the first section, “From Our Little Selves to a Larger World,” that Nouwen embraces most closely, and most comfortingly, the images of Psalm 30:
Mourning makes us poor; it powerfully reminds us of our smallness. …And as we dance, we realize that we don’t have to stay on the little spot of our grief, but can step beyond it. We stop centering our lives on ourselves. We pull others along with us and invite them into the larger dance. …As we dance and walk forward, grace provides the ground on which our steps fall. Prayer puts us in touch with the God of the Dance (12, 14).
I cannot read these words, and the words of the Psalmist, without thinking about the words of Sydney Carter, the American hymn writer who gave us the words to “Lord of the Dance (1963),” words I have sung so often set to the American Shaker tune Simple Gifts:
Dance then, wherever you may be.
I am the Lord of the Dance said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
As Nouwen puts it, “If mourning and dancing are part of the same movement of grace, we can be grateful for every moment we have lived (17).” My job, along the way, is to remember those last words of the Psalmist: “…you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent (30:12).” Homework, indeed.
I know, that with the gift of hindsight, I will find the beauty in these days of pain and letting go, but Nouwen’s words do help me find a little perspective in the present moment. Maybe, just maybe, the music of the dance is not so far away.