November 2020
Spiritual Wellbeing

Holding the Christ Light In the Darkness of Sorrow

Advent and Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year – the sparkling lights, the swirl of parties, the carols, the decorations, the special times with family and friends – until it is not. For those experiencing grief, loss or hardship, the most wonderful time of the year becomes one of pain and grief, a harsh reminder of life that once was. In this shocking time, how can we hold the Christ light for those in despair?

Lay pastoral caregivers in the Community of Hope (COHI) can be present with those who suffer as they navigate the realities of their feelings and work toward hope, so that “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome.” (John 1:5)

COHI was founded in 1994 by the Rev. Dr. Helen Appelberg to train much-needed lay chaplains for Houston’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital. The COHI mission is “creating communities steeped in Benedictine Spirituality to serve others through compassionate listening.” Well over 100 COHI centers around the U.S. and in Malawi now exist and are striving to serve those in need in new ways in this time of the pandemic.

How St. Benedict’s Rule can bring focus and order

The foundation of COHI is Benedictine spirituality. “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” So begins The Rule of Benedict, written in the sixth century. The Rule is based on Benedict’s beliefs that we are called to love God and to love each other in community. Benedict teaches us to live a life of prayer, work, study and leisure, thereby creating a life in balance. His treatise established a rule of life, a concept adopted by many modern faith groups and organizations to order life and assure one’s focus is set on the most important activities.

For example, COHI lay chaplains are encouraged to chart all of their activities for a week, including three regularly scheduled daily meals and two regularly scheduled daily prayer times. After honestly and fully scripting our weekly activities, we can see and begin to cull those that are harmful or useless (too much time on screens and/or on the couch) and add in personal care and valuable activities (meditation, family time, exercise).

We mortals may never develop a perfect rule of life, but we can strive daily to get closer. Benedictine practices and a rule of life can strengthen our resilience.

Healing can begin when you name your loss

Perhaps the first step in dealing with loss is to name your grief. The Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi from Pohick Episcopal Church in Lorton, Virginia, tells us:

Grief has a purpose. We need to acknowledge loss and enter actively into a process of adapting to it. While it is expected and even healthy to lament, if we persist in seeing the world as it was before the loss, we will be blind to a new reality. However, if we learn to name losses and enter willingly into a process of grieving and listening to one another, then grief can be transformational and healing. Grieving can lead to renewed hope and a deeper faith. In the words of St. Paul: “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

Stories of transformation, healing, and resilience

Co-author Jennifer Sassin, a COHI lay chaplain and board member, shares this powerful story of naming and sharing our grief. It offers another piece of evidence confirming the power of listening to people and not “fixing” them.

The husband of one of my friends had died at the end of summer, and as the days moved closer to the holidays she started to feel the loss more intensely. She began to withdraw from social and family gatherings, as well as her regular attendance at church. Eventually she was almost paralyzed in her grief and unwilling or unable to get out of bed. I don’t remember whether my friend called me first, or I just dropped by her house, but I sat by her bedside for hours, listening as she cried and talked about how much she loved and missed her husband.

The grieving friend doesn’t remember Jennifer saying anything, just listening, but during that profound and compassionate listening, she began to feel that she was not alone and that her wonderful memories of her husband and their life together would see her through. She knew she had experienced first-hand the gift of presence and the hope it brings.

In a similar story, lay chaplain Rose Avila from St. Paul Catholic Church in San Antonio shares her eloquent story of facing her first Christmas holiday without her beloved mother:

Where two or more are gathered in his name Christ is present, body, blood, soul and divinity. Take out your manger and meditate before the crib, before the baby Jesus and talk to him. Spend an hour daily sitting before the manger and looking and speaking to the baby Jesus from your heart to his heart, like two hearts attached.

I did this at Christmas after my mom passed away, and I was missing her so much. I sat before the manger and conversed with the Baby Jesus, sharing my sadness. The Holy Spirit enlightened me to do a Christmas card with my mom’s picture, sharing how she always honored Jesus by putting up the manger every Christmas. And then I wrote part of Mary’s Magnificat as if my mom were singing it: “My soul magnifies the Lord! And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

If you feel alone, remember you are not alone because Jesus is with you in your heart. We need only to sit before the manger and converse with him.”

Rose, in Benedictine fashion, reached out to Christ in prayer and meditation for comfort. She then named her loss and shared her Christ experience with others through her cards.

Benedict’s rule and daily life

In his presentation “Coping and Caring as a Community during Covid-19,” the Rev. Alex Allain from Pohick Episcopal Church in Lorton, Virginia, suggests maintaining “a rhythm of your day, particularly beginning your day with a prayer of intention.” He also proposes listening to or reading about one’s faith or connecting with the exquisite nature of God’s world. His instruction to schedule regular prayer and study and suggestion that we cope better in community are Benedictine concepts.

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards from Christ Church of the Ascension in Paradise Valley, Arizona, writes “Finding a way to order a life that has so many facets has been a struggle, honestly. The Rule has given me a way to order my priorities and time so that I can just as honestly claim that stability and transformation are both growing in my world and in me.”

We do not walk alone in our grief journey

Looking around, especially during this time of a pandemic, it’s easy to see the suffering, the losses and the grief. Our world is hurting. The people we love get sick; their hearts are broken; they are anxious and depressed; sometimes they die. It is hard to be surrounded by holiday revelry and sing “Joy to the World” when we feel no joy in our hearts.

We must remember, we do not suffer alone. Invite Christ into your grief. Reach out to clergy, a friend or a lay pastoral caregiver. COHI lay chaplains create a safe and sacred space where those who are hurting can honor the tough emotions they are feeling. Whether this is your first holiday season without someone you love or you are hurting from a loss of long ago, it’s okay to mourn at this time of year. As COHI lay chaplains or others listen compassionately to your story with the “ear of their hearts,” open your heart to the love that is offered. Christ’s light will shine through the darkness.

Pam Piedfort has 40+ years of experience as an educator, teaching students from third grade to university, mostly in the field of literacy. Most of her adult life she has been an Episcopalian, and she has been a Community of Hope lay chaplain for five years. Pam currently lives in San Antonio, TX and attends St. George Episcopal Church.

Jennifer Sassin has more than 30 years of experience as a professional freelance business and technical writer and project management analyst. She began her journey with Community of Hope International (COHI) in 1999, training at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. Relocating to Virginia in 2003, she was instrumental in beginning a COHI center at Pohick Episcopal Church in Lorton. Over the past 20+ years, Jennifer has been involved in planting new centers, developing a facilitator guide for the COHI training videos, presenting COHI conference workshops and developing facilitator training. She has shared with others the joy of this ministry of presence and the many blessings associated with the opportunity for continuous spiritual development afforded by COHI through the principles of Benedictine spirituality.

Find more information about the Community of Hope International here.

Please join us for the Community of Hope International webinar on Dealing with Loss and Grief in the Midst of a Pandemic on December 2 at 1pm EST. Register here.


This article is part of the November 2020 Vestry Papers issue on Spiritual Wellbeing