There are two cats howling outside my window. They were so loud I thought that they were some breed of hound dog at first. I wanted to go out to investigate but got a sudden fear of rabies. I instead chose the safe side and looked up what is called "feline vocalization" on Google.
Cats, for whatever reason, cry and whine really loudly when they are in distress or grieving. The hurting cat outside my window has a friend huddled with him in the bush, shielding themselves against the cold. Whenever his cry crescendos, the other cat joins in. Their constant howling made me want to run outside to scare them away at first. After putting on my coat, I got this sudden feeling like I would be intruding on something sacred. As much as I hate cats, their meowing in unison has a sense of comfort. It is almost as if they are grieving together.
It is an understatement to say that Job was grieving after all he knew and possessed was taken away from him. The Hebrew word nud describes his reaction-- swaying back and forth, nodding his head, much like we see today with trauma victims. Job's friends come along and are so filled with compassion and grief for their friend that they sit next to him in silence. For seven days.
Imagine sitting with someone for seven days. Job's friends reaction was brilliant. It was a gift. It was so powerful, in fact, that the Jewish people adopted it as a grieving practice. To this day many Jews will perform the practice of shiva (literally, "sitting seven") and mourn with their loved ones for a period of a week.
Job needed this kind of support from his friends. But after the seven days were over his friends finally opened their mouths and talked -- a lot. They did so much talking that the book of Job is filled primarily of their speeches. They also got in trouble for it.
What does it look like for us to practice shiva today? What would happen if we avoided empty words of comfort and simply strove to listen and grieve with those who are hurting?
Just yesterday my husband practiced shiva. We were checking out at Odd Lots when Aaron looked up at the cashier, studied her face, and sincerely asked how she was feeling. What followed surprised me. With tears in her eyes, she explained that her sister was in the hospital dying and probably wouldn't make it until the end of the week. Turning to me, she commented that it felt like Aaron knew something was wrong. He seemed to be able to see right through her. She could see it in his face.
Shiva happens when we make ourselves available. It occurs when, instead of the casual "How are you?", we look in a person's eyes and ask them how they are really doing. It happens when we are intentional about making people, even cashiers at Odd Lots, a priority. This makes me uncomfortable. I see someone crying by themselves on my college campus and want to do something about it, but wimp out. I fear what they will think of me. I fear that I won't know what to say. I get uncomfortable thinking that I'll be making them uncomfortable.
In Romans 12:15, Paul simply says to mourn with those who mourn. He doesn't tell us to give a theological answer as to why that person is suffering. He doesn't tell us to say that everything is going to be ok. We don't have to have all the answers or worry that what we are doing is "weird." God uses uncomfortable situations like these to meet with people. All we have to do is be.
Maybe, just maybe, the best way to communicate God's presence and love to someone who is hurting is by simply sitting with them, being quiet, and meowing in unison.