When Words Fail

I imagined writing a “Happy New Year” post for this week, highlighting upcoming events at the retreat center such as our workshop on choosing joy. Instead I sat at my computer searching for words adequate to capture this moment in our collective history. A pastor friend texted me a political cartoon: a woman leaping from one burning building, marked 2020, landing on a life net held by firemen and catapulting into an adjacent burning building, marked 2021. The image conveys the shock, heartbreak, grief, and trauma of this past week. After heading toward new life with our hopes buoyed by vaccine distributions, the desecration of the U.S. capitol building, the loss of life and threats to life, and the attempted coup plunge us back into the void. Add to that 4,000 deaths from COVID in a single day for the first time. It’s been a horrific week in the United States of America.

I have heard a common refrain in many personal and professional responses to these events: an inability to concentrate; a sense of walking about in a stupor; and comparisons to life in a dystopian novel. I can relate. Two days ago, when I could do nothing else, I took a brisk walk in my neighborhood. I called colleagues about mundane things like meeting agendas and the functionality of video equipment. Moving helped me. So did our focus on the quotidian. Our conversations eventually veered toward weightier matters: the mental health and safety of a family member, in one instance, and a past trauma triggered by watching the news, in another. Attending to immediate, mundane tasks bolstered our capacity to acknowledge and express fear and loss without being consumed by it. 

Acclaimed author Kathleen Norris wrote a book a number of years ago, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work.” Norris elevates the significance of ordinary, repetitive tasks like liturgy and laundry and cooking meals. She poetically reminds us (as she reminds herself) that in doing these things we encounter God. She also shines a light on the healing potential of the mundane. She writes that these activities “have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.” Yesterday, after reading the latest news on what actually transpired in the capitol—it is worse than we initially knew —I turned to the quotidian. I cooked healthy, comforting meals, tidied the house, joined an online exercise class, and called a friend.

I also took time to sit. In silence. Away from the news stream on my phone. The news stream in my own mind was more difficult to turn off—the images of the unhinged mob and a confederate flag waving in the capitol building; the lament of a nation; the global outcry. When we feel overwhelmed, mindful breathing can center us. We place our attention on our breath, noticing the sensations in our nose, chest, abdomen, and back. When our minds drift off, we gently bring our attention back to our breathing. Even five minutes of this practice can reduce anxiety, enhance our connection to our deepest values, and enable us to recognize anew lovingkindness in our lives, in our world. 

Jack Kornfield, whose work we have mentioned here on Retreat Where You Are, posted a lovely and do-able mindfulness meditation on his Facebook page yesterday. It also only takes three-to-five minutes to complete: With each breath, exhale tension. Let yourself imagine that you have roots that go deep into the soil of the earth to steady and nurture you. If images help, let yourself remember a wonderful tree from your life—an old tree, strong tree. Imagine that you are standing in front of the tree, meditating together. Just as this great tree has a strong trunk that has weathered storms and the changing of the seasons, feel your own body steady like the trunk of that tree.

Kornfield’s meditation brings to mind images from scripture, particularly Psalm 1:

Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers; 
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night. 
They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. 

The wicked are not so,
   but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
   but the way of the wicked will perish.

Contemplating the promises of God replenishes and sustains us, so much so that we become like strong trees withstanding the harshest weather and eventually bursting with new life.

When words fail us and grief weighs us down, we can be restored by ordinary acts of care, mindful breathing and meditation, and quiet reflections on short scripture passages and wise poems. By grace, we will remember that truth, beauty, and goodness prevail over lies, violence, and destruction, and our grief will turn to resolve to love and to live well in relation to all.

*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).



  1. Sue Larsen says:

    Dr Sanjay Gupta speaks to me with this; take a brisk walk with a good friend and discuss your problems.
    Sounds like you get that. BTW. Didn’t know ‘quotidian’ but understand it’s power now. Thank you once again wise woman.

    1. Theresa says:

      So lovely to hear from you, Sue. Thank you for drawing to our attention this connection to Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s advice. All the best to you!

  2. Leslie Ritter-Jenkins says:

    Theresa, Thank you for your heartfelt thoughts and prayers about our collective well-being, connecting us to scripture and to those walking the path with us, along with ‘good advice’. I noticed the translation is “the way of the wicked shall perish” rather than “the wicked shall perish”. I like this translation very much which focuses on the path, the way, that is life-alienating vs the person. May grace and the power of self-reflection be present for us all, and my especially for those who are unmoored from care, community, the common good, and reality, and have taken to violence.

    1. Theresa Latini says:

      Leslie, thank you so much for pointing out this important distinction in the translation. It makes a tremendous difference in how we hold one another in our hearts and minds, and thank you, too, for your clear longing for self-reflection. Just beautiful.

  3. Louisa Walker says:

    Thank you – I love the Monday devotions. Lu walker

    1. Theresa Latini says:

      Thank you, Lu! So glad to know you are enjoying these. Peace to you!

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