For centuries Christian mystics have understood that to enter the silent land is to encounter God in the tension between body and spirit, abundance and desolation. Many images and words can describe this experience. Whether crossing burning sands or facing an inward battle against addiction, journeying into the desert epitomizes what it means to be fully human and fully alive. In my early twenties I spent a year living and serving in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Atlanta. Like the deserts of the contemplative tradition, urban deserts are filled with their own kinds of paradoxes. These neighborhoods are places we drive by for years on the highway without ever really seeing – invisible yet always in plain sight. They are the “wounded” places we talk about with a social righteousness that cannot mask our fear of violent crime and desperate poverty. But above all they are “thin places,” places where God dwells more tangibly than in the grandest cathedrals and most lavish banquet halls.
In his thought-provoking book Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird writes that “the doorway into the silent land is a wound. Silence lays bare this wound.” I have never experienced a greater silence than the ringing hush that follows a gunshot. There is something disturbingly absolute about that silence. The week I arrived in Atlanta a three-year-old boy was shot by his father in the dilapidated apartments across the street from where I was living. Everyone called it an accident except for the police, who arrested and held the man without bond. Everyone called it an accident, but everyone knew that it was really a wound.
The evening after the shooting a vigil was held outside the home of the grieving mother. She was an unmarried mother of three who worked days at Kroger and most nights at a seedy bar down the road. Her closest family apart from her children was an elderly matron whom most people called Mama Jo. Mama Jo had lived in the neighborhood her entire life. Over the years she had watched it transform from a vibrant community to an urban wasteland. Her family was among the many unable to escape the vicious cycle of generations of poverty that plagues inner-city communities.
Around dusk neighbors began to gather around the apartment with food, candles, pictures, and money to help the family get through the month. As more and more people arrived, the sun sank beneath the horizon and the crowd was engulfed in cool darkness. The glow of the candles gave the scene an otherworldly feeling. I watched as family after family approached and embraced the heartbroken mother, her children, and Mama Jo.
As the sun sank, a minister pushed his way through the crowd. He was a self-proclaimed disciple of God who, whatever his spiritual gifts might be, was poorly dressed for the occasion in an extravagant white suit and matching shoes. When he shouted praises over God’s many rewards in heaven the crowd swayed and the mother of the dead child cried into Mama Jo’s shoulder. She needed to cry, to release the storm of grief and pain raging inside of her. But Mama Jo didn’t cry. As the preacher wailed and the crowd clamored, Mama Jo stood there like a weathered, ancient oak deeply rooted in the earth. Mama Jo didn’t cry, though the world around her was spinning with pain. In a sea of grief she alone stood anchored and dry-eyed throughout the preacher’s sermon. The preacher’s words may have been ones she had heard too many times from too many preachers at too many funerals. Or maybe she was too deep in her mourning to do anything but stand there and sway with the bereaved mother.
When the sermon ended a few members of the community expressed their condolences to the family. When it was Mama Jo’s turn to speak her voice was deep and surprisingly steady. I don’t remember everything she said, but her final words were, “He’s in Jesus’ arms now. We all are. He nevah stop holding us.” Many in the crowd nodded their heads and a few shouted amens.
Her words didn’t carry the eloquence of the preacher’s. But to those familiar with life’s trials and transformations in the desert, Mama Jo’s words would have spoken volumes. It’s not that Mama Jo wasn’t grieving. She had likely grieved her whole life. Grieved the missed opportunities for herself, her children, and her community. Grieved knowing that world around her was the product of an apathy that wounded more deeply than hate. Grieved alone at night for justice that might never come. But as deeply as grief had hollowed out her life, strength flowed from her as if from a bottomless well. Despite every hardship and scarcity the world had dealt her, Mama Jo knew in her bones the abundance and immediacy of God’s loving presence in her life. Her profound belief in God made space for her grief and for her conviction that death, suffering, and loss were not the final word. It was written in the way she held herself. It was spoken in her words: “He nevah stop holding us.”