Holding the cup of sorrow & joy

Henri Nouwen has a beautiful little book titled, Can You Drink the Cup? that gets to the core of human experience in a tender and true way.  His driving sentiment, that we all must aspire to hold, lift, and drink the cup of salvation that is our lives, is one that speaks so directly to the individual reader that there is nowhere left to hide upon completing the book.

At no point does he disguise the anguish of the world, and he offers no tools or tricks for working around difficulty. His words hold great promise, though: drink every last drop from your cup, and you will certainly find joy along with your sorrow. When this is done, your cup can be shared with others and can transform relationships and communities.

I have often reflected on how complicated it is to understand sorrow and emptiness at one point and sheer joy and wonder the next. But this is the way of life, and selecting an experience that skims across emotions out of fear or apathy will deprive us of a full life. I’ve had plenty of moments in which I felt sorry for myself (the most useless of emotions); why is my mother so weak? Why has she given up being a mother? How can I carry the pain of my sisters, my friends, and why do they have to bear this type of pain?  But if my cup of sorrow is, in part, to hold fragments of a family rather than a whole piece, then that is my cup. What are the joys that this cup of sorrow will bring? There are many, and more to come.

A few months ago, I visited the parents of a dear friend. We enjoyed an afternoon and evening together at their home, where they’ve raised 7 wonderful children. We shared great conversation, a delicious meal, and they generously let me stay the night. The following morning, after breakfast, the three of us walked outside to our respective cars to start the day. I was nearly to my car when I turned around to see my friend’s mom running through knee-deep snow towards me. She wanted to make sure to give me a hug before I left. I recall the image of her making her way towards me through the snow, one sleeve of her jacket not quite all the way on, kindness overflowing from her being. Somehow, in that image of her wading through snow towards me, all of her goodness is captured — her unmistakable maternal love, her strong faith, her care for others… and I continue to pull this small memory out of its box again and again.

This, to me, is part of the joy that accompanies my cup of sorrow: there are serious familial gaps that I would rather not experience, but these gaps have become spaces that have prodded and pushed me to reach my hand out to others in a deeper way. In my wavering and stumbling, God has found me more intimately through the maternal love of others. The reward has been great, and my sorrows are now intrinsically tied to joy forever. This paradox is one that can be extended to others — where I’ve been shown great love from people outside of my family, I now know the value of an outstretched hand — even if it is towards a stranger or acquaintance.


From a narrow vantage

I sit, watching her brown feet

hammer across hot sand

like an upright crab dancing across shells.

I think she is a sweet date with no wrinkles,

her saggy swimsuit a mere adult artifact she graciously dons —

its ruffles and hearts nothing more than the coded language of the times.


It’s not long after that I’m seated beside a small boy,

telling me that soon the plane will go fast

as he offers me a piece of his gum.

He double checks that his penguin and myself are buckled

because he still loves everyone.

He wants to tell me many things, touches my hand without thinking,

but is scolded for bothering strangers too much.

I try to undo the wall, but my eyes can’t seem to express

how much I love the light of his wonder, the magic bridge he makes

from one world to another.

“Do you love me?”

Beside my bed, there is a rendition of the Christ Pantocrator icon — Christ looking ahead at the viewer with an expression of complete knowledge. Each morning, due to its proximity, the Christ Pantocrator is the first clear, complete image that greets me; a fact that is furthered by my terrible eyesight — and the reality that most other objects remain blurry until I put my contacts in for the day.

Processed with VSCO with a4 preset

His permanent expression, much like His love, is unchanging, available, and patient. Each day, those eyes ask the same question: Do you love me? Of course, my hope is to say “yes” each day — and like most, my response often falls short or comes with a set of caveats. Yes, I do love You! But I’m not ready for the pain that is coming. I love You, but…just give me some more time. I love You, I’m just not ready for the point-of-no-return. If I say I love You, can you promise it won’t hurt? Then the day happens: I’m checking emails, brushing my teeth, hastily pouring coffee in a portable mug, and racing out the door.

In times of confusion, anxiety, or hardship, we’re often pushed spiritually to look Christ in the eye and respond. I venture to say that, many times, we know the answer(s) to our biggest problems, deep down. We know that the right thing is probably the hard thing, the truth that we can’t ignore is a painful one, and the decision-making we’ve been avoiding isn’t going to be fun. At every turn, there He is, asking: But do you love me? On paper, we know: if we could simply offer Him our unrelenting love, no caveats, everything will work out. It is true! Yet, we resist again and again as our human status continues to fail us, falling prey to fear, comfort, habit, whatever makes us feel less alone.

Perhaps we can’t even accept the invitation directly from Christ’s hand and we need an instrument – Christ in another form. I remember a difficult conversation I had with a close friend last year. As I shared my deepest fears, everything that was holding me back from a difficult decision, my friend listened intently on the phone as I started to cry. Like many women, my tears were quickly followed with an apology: “I’m so sorry for crying!” But my friend responded gracefully with a chuckle that was brimming with compassion, saying, “Claire, don’t be sorry. I cried earlier this morning while watching a television show!” Somehow, in that deeply sincere chuckle, I felt the presence of God. There was something unique in it that I can’t put my finger on; something at once knowing, comforting, even paternal. It reminded me of a reflection I have often employed in times of struggle: the image of myself resting in God’s outstretched palm. Entirely cared for and lovingly watched over by a far greater, larger being. A child’s trust is present in that image.

And that’s what it has taken me so long to learn: that without a deep, perhaps childlike trust in our God, we will always reply to His question with a caveat. Our trust allows us to be easier on ourselves, too: there’s no need to fully understand our love for Christ in each response; we only need to continue to reply yes, our childlike trust leading the way, and the rest will follow.