Her Nightmare, and Ours

Rizpah Mourns Her Sons by Lauren Wright Pittman

For all my adult life, I have been an eager student of dreams. For many years now, I have studied the great dream traditions of the world as well as the practice of interpreting dreams in a way that brings healing and wholeness to our individual and collective lives.  To this day, dreamwork is one of the most important spiritual practices in my own life and in the lives of those who come to me for spiritual direction and guidance. And of all the things I have learned about dreams over the years, none is more important than the spiritual value of nightmares.

That’s right. Nightmares. Just to be clear: I do not enjoy the experience of a nightmare any more than you do. In the midst of a nightmare, I too wake up drenched in sweat, filled with grief and dread and sometimes real terror. But over the years, I have come to understand that every dream comes in the service of wholeness. And if we have been neglecting that wholeness; if we have been ignoring the more subtle, daily messages from our souls, then a nightmare will come to startle us into attentive awareness. If we have been asleep to our own soul’s deep needs or to the needs of our collective soul, then the nightmare will come, like an honest friend, to wake us up.

What’s more, nightmares come to us not only at night, when we are alone with our individual dreams, but also through our sacred texts. I believe that all the world’s sacred scriptures, in fact, can be seen as our collective dream: a story that, just like our nighttime dreams, communicates through symbol and metaphor; a story that comes to show us the path of healing and wholeness; a story that, at times, must confront us with painful images in order to awaken us to injustice, to cruelty and neglect, and to the misuse of power — before it’s too late.

And so it is that we find ourselves confronted this day with the nightmare of our foremother Rizpah. A woman whose life has unravelled into the realm of full-blown nightmare and who insists that in order to heal our own lives, we must be willing to see and hear her. In order to awaken to our own call in the world, we must see and hear the nightmare of this woman’s pain. A woman has no status or power. A woman whose body and soul are used, and abused, by the men who all but own her. And now we hear that even her sons have been taken from her:  murdered at the decree of a ruler who sacrifices the lives of innocent young men in order to try and shore up the economic well being of his nation and solidify his own power.

Friends, this particular nightmare from our sacred text does not unfold on the streets of Portland or Minneapolis or New York. But if this mother’s story sounds disturbingly familiar this summer, it’s because the Bible is the record of our own collective dream. Rizpah’s nightmare of economic injustice; of women and poor people being used and tossed away by their own government; of a social hierarchy that crushes innocent lives — this is the very nightmare to which the privileged among us are only now beginning to awaken. Rizpah’s story is the very nightmare that our black and brown sisters and brothers are living every day, even now. If ever there were a story for our own time, a story that can mirror for us the nightmare of our own tortured psyche, the story of Rizpah is that mirror. And today, our sacred text, our ancient dream, asks us whether we are willing to see ourselves in this holy mirror. Today, our mother Rizpah asks whether we are willing to let her nightmare wake us up.

One of the things that makes dreams such powerful tools for awakening is that they operate through images. Much like paintings and other forms of visual art, dreams bypass the skillful denials and rationalizations of our everyday verbal mind. Instead, images speak directly to the soul’s capacity to make meaning from metaphor and symbol. So today, I invite you to enter into this ancient text through the doorway of visual imagery as we spend some time with an artist’s rendition of this story. This opportunity to open the scripture with images is one of the beautiful gifts of this strange season. In our church sanctuary, it is very challenging to project an image in such a way that everyone can see it. But here in our own homes, we have the opportunity to let visual images lead us more deeply into the text. So I invite you now to take a close look at the painting Rizpah Mourns her Sons by Lauren Wright Pittman.

I wonder what part of this painting captures your attention first. For me, it is the enormity of Rizpah’s pain. A pain she refuses to hide. Beloved, this is not a silent grief. This is a grief, an anguish, that demands to be seen. It demands that those who are responsible for the death of this mother’s sons reckon with their deeds every time they see her. And see her they will. Because rather than slinking home to mourn, Rizpah has taken up her sackcloth and climbed the very mountain of God. And there she stays. “From the beginning of the harvest until the rains fell on them.” In the holy land, friends, this is something close to six months. Imagine. Six months of unrelenting civil disobedience in the most public place she could find. Six months of unspeakable anguish on display for all to see. Nothing can bring back the seven sons this woman has lost. All she has left is her unspeakable grief. All she has left are the lifeless bodies of her children. And she is prepared to defend those bodies–blood of her blood, flesh of her flesh–with her life. For six months her grief and rage are on display for all to see: the ancient world’s equivalent of a televised public vigil. For six months, she camps on that mountain,  refusing to go home and hide; refusing to back down until she is seen. Remember that Rizpah is a woman with no power, no money, no status, no legal recourse to right the wrongs that have unravelled her life. The only power she has is the power to make herself visible; the power to make the world see her in her grief and in her rage. And so, Rizpah seeks justice the only way she can: with a radical, desperate act of public grief. And finally, after six months, the king sees her. 

Finally, after six months, David sees this woman in her raw, unspeakable grief. Finally, after six months of public protest, the king recognizes the wrong he has done. Only then, when he is forced to see both himself and this woman clearly, is David moved to make an act of reparation. Only then does the king realize the error of his ways: God does not demand human sacrifice. David got that dead wrong. In the metaphorical language of our shared dream, God sends the waters of new life only when some kind of reparation has been made. God sends the waters of new life only after David realizes the error of his ways and — so little…so late — acts to honor the bones, and the memory, of those whose lives have been lost forever.

And so it is that across space and time, we are asked to receive the painful gift of this nightmare. A nightmare that comes, as all nightmares do, as a wake-up call. A nightmare that comes to remind us of the power of public grief. The sacred nightmare of a mother who demands justice for her sons and who insists that we see her pain as a prerequisite to our collective healing. A nightmare in which God sees the pain of the most vulnerable. A nightmare in which God calls us to  do the same, so that we too might change our ways. May we be awakened this day. Amen.

One thought on “Her Nightmare, and Ours

  1. This piece is beautiful. I agree with my atheist friend who read it, “it gives me shivers”.
    Thank you for sharing your gifts.

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