This morning I read an article by Leah Lamb in Spirituality & Health, “Find the Good in Good Grief”. As challenging as the title of her article is, I was even more challenged by one of her section titles: “The Honor of Burden.”
Leah spent two years studying with Stephen Jenkinson. The legend is that this spiritual teacher “has sat with over a thousand people as they died, while working as director of palliative care at Toronto’s Sinai Hospital”. Startled herself by Jenkenson’s idea that a burden is somehow an honor, he told her the following story about the experience of constructing a yurt from Mongolia:
“One of the characteristics (of these structures) is that they don’t screw, nail, or fasten together. It is a very rickety affair when you put up the bones of the thing, which can be unnerving; you wonder how it could be safe and not collapse on people. But once you put the felt (which can weigh hundreds of pounds) on top, it instantly firms into place. It’s the burden that gives it the capacity to carry. The ability to carry is only the principle. It’s the power of the weight resting upon something that confirms its capacity to carry.”
My first thought and the author’s was about community engagement as they share together in reaching out to those in need. No material burden is too great when people get together and share their material resources and talents. But I think there is another kind of burden sharing that is more familiar to me as I reflect on my own life.
Psalm 38 is a desperate prayer by a person whose burden is a sickness of the soul: “I am in great pain…my whole body is diseased because of my sins. I am drowning in the flood of my sins; they are a burden too heavy to bear…O Lord, you know my longing: for you to hear all my groans. My heart is pounding, my strength is gone…my neighbors will not come near me because of my sores…even my family keeps away from me…I trust you, O Lord…I confess my sins; they fill me with anxiety.”
And Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke because I am gentle and humble in spirit, and you will find rest. for the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I put on you is light.” (Matthew 11:28)
I think of those who are able to handle the pain and confession of those whose souls are sick due to guilt, addiction, depression, loneliness, discouragement, and fear. These are the ones not afraid to step into another’s pain to listen and counsel and share their own stories. The story of the yurt building tells me that these people can do what they do because, whether others are there with them as they do their work or not, they are indeed supported by others. They themselves have been broken and healed again. Or they have known the relief of just being listened to because someone listened to them. They have been held by the hand as they walked the walk out of the clutches of an addiction or through a difficult loss. These are the bones, as Jenkinson says, that stand firm when the heavy burden is placed upon them. We are the holders of those most difficult of burdens that no one of us has the strength to or balance to hold alone.