Roberta Bondi is a writer, speaker, teacher, and retreat leader. She is Professor Emerita of Church History at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.
Roberta is the author of 9 books, including her latest, a book of reflections and poetry on the death of her mother: Wild Things: Poems of Grief and Love, Loss and Gratitude. Other well-known books are To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church (Fortress Press, 1987), To Pray and To Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church (Fortress, 1991), and Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (Abingdon Press, 1995). Her writing has also been published in many periodicals, among them Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Life, Christian Century, Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, and Reflections (journal of Yale Divinity School). She is a longtime faculty member of The Upper Room’s Academy for Spiritual Formation.
Roberta earned a bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University and completed two years of study at Perkins School of Theology. She holds Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Oxford University.
Roberta is a weaver and a spinner who is interested in women’s work with fiber through the ages. She is married to Richard Bondi, a pastoral counselor, and they have two children and two grandchildren. The Bondis live in the North Georgia mountains and have a beloved bichon frise named Curly.
A Conversation with Roberta Bondi
You are a writer, speaker, teacher, and retreat leader. What led you to these types of ministries?
This is not an easy question to answer, but I will do my best. I grew up with a very problematic relationship to Christianity and what I knew as its judgmental and vengeful God. I was always attracted to God, but I also was sure that God had judged me and rejected me. I was terrified of God, but I could not figure out how to get away from “him.”
When I was in graduate school and looked for a dissertation topic, however, I met the great Christian monastic teachers of the Egyptian desert, who lived from the fourth century into the sixth century, and the teachers who followed them in other parts of the Roman Empire. Through them, I was astounded when I was encountered by a different God – a God who, as these teachers said, looked at our faults and weaknesses with much more compassion than other human beings do. I was just blown away by this thought. Could God really be like this? If God was, I knew that nothing would ever look the same to me again.
I decided to work on the teachings of the desert mothers and fathers for my dissertation. While I wasn’t allowed to do exactly what I wanted, I continued to read them and took them for my own teachers. These were really the folks who saved my life from despair and self-hatred. It sounds overly dramatic, but take my word for it, it really isn’t.
When in 1978 I started teaching Early Church History in Candler School of Theology at Emory University, it soon became obvious to me that many students there needed just as much as I had to hear what these great and kind teachers had to say about God, God’s love, and our love for one another. As I got my feet under me, I found myself feeling almost obligated to share with the students.
And sure enough, many students responded as I originally had, with relief and joy at this good news. Soon I began working very hard to put what the early monastic teachers had to say into clear English that anyone who ached could understand. From there, I wrote books for the purpose of teaching anyone who needed what I had learned from these good teachers. The first two were To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church, and To Pray and to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church.
As the years passed, I found better ways to teach as I continued to learn from my teachers, but I never tired of it because we have not run out of hearts that have been wounded, as mine had been. It is still my delight to watch the grace that flows from that ancient Egyptian desert when I am allowed to share what I know through teaching or leading a retreat or by having someone read one of my books.
What led me to all this? For a person as basically quiet and introverted as I am, it can only be God in the form of those ancient teachers. In those first few years of teaching, writing, and speaking so many years ago, I never would have chosen it. What kept me going until I learned to do what I do was a strong sense of calling the desert mothers and fathers kept reminding me of when I faltered. They reminded me that I must just accept that the spiritual work I was trying to do would be hard and painful until I learned how.
Wild Things is a reflection of your grieving the loss of your mother. Why do you think it is important to work through our grief rather than turn away from it?
This is a truly important question.
First, and most obvious, is this: we can’t turn away from grief, even if we try. It is there, and if it is not experienced in the best ways possible, it will gnaw away at our hearts till they become like Swiss cheese.
When we have a close relationship with another person, they become an organic part of us and we of them. To try to forget them when we lose them is like trying to forget you have a right foot. Even if your foot doesn’t work very well, it is still your foot. If you ignore it when it is injured, it will still hurt. Even if it is cut off, you still feel pain in it even after the limb is gone.
Second, grief resides in our deepest selves. To turn away from grief is to deny the part of ourselves that is most real – the part of ourselves that loves and has loved, that connects with others, that recognizes and knows God. If we ignore this deep self, we start to live entirely on the surface of life – a problem pastors seem to have just as much as anybody else.
Third, to work through grief is to receive comfort and ultimately the healing of what needs to be healed so that we ourselves can live.
Fourth, consciously grieving is a way to remember and honor your loved ones and preserve their lives in yourself.
Finally, I have found that there is a gift in grieving that comes to me in no other way than through grieving itself. Grief gives me a temporary ability to see every little thing that is beautiful in the world and understand its goodness as a gift. When Mama died, I experienced all things as bathed in the glory and beauty of God for several months. It was out of this framework that I wrote most of these poems.
I think we modern folk need to let ourselves learn how to grieve and not hurry it along. Life is too precious to rush through and destroy parts of it, just because grieving hurts.
You wrote out of the experience of your mother’s death. Are there other types of grief that must also be attended to?
Oh dear, yes. Leaving a job, failing to get a job you’ve really wanted and perhaps prepared for, leaving a way of life you have known and loved through retirement or through your children leaving home, losing a spouse to divorce, the loss of health, the dulling of the mind with aging, losing your youth, moving out of a house, the death of a pet, the loss of a familiar community – we have innumerable things to mourn over the course of our lives.
As for the coping mechanisms for coming through grief, prayer has been the most important for me.
Can you say more about prayer and grieving?
I can tell you that I have found many ways of praying helpful in the work of grieving. The most therapeutic, however, is the kind of writing I did writing this poetry. In the poetry, I tried to find the most exact and truthful words and images I could to express my thoughts, feelings, doubts, exhaustion, gratitude, and wonder – every single day. Though only a few of these poems are overtly addressed to God, all of them are, really. I was aware of them as prayer – for that matter, I have always understood my writing to be prayer. It is in the context of prayer alone that I find I can be truthful with myself and stand the pain, which God helps me bear by giving me an intense sense of God’s presence and love.
What I am talking about is not asking God for anything except for what awareness of God that God will give me in this time, for memories and the ability to forgive, for courage, and gratitude. I guess this is pretty much to ask for, isn’t it? But God gives all these things at different times.
Sometimes writing of this sort is described as a spiritual discipline that helps deepen our relationship with God, and I have found this to be the case. For me, it has something to do with laying out truthfully in God’s beloved presence all my raw pain and guilt and sense of failure that seems to go with human loss and then at the same time, experiencing what God gives me to be experienced. Sometimes this seems bitter, often it is sharp; sometimes it is restful, sometimes sweetness; but always, I believe it is God’s own loving self that I know to be there in the midst of pain, pain, pain.
By the way, I’d like to say here that there is no one technique for writing I would recommend. Write from your heart. Read it the next day and see what comes to you. (I rarely remember what I have written from one day to the next.) Be at ease over what to do. The only way you can do it wrong is to try to make yourself look good, or noble, or something, thereby hiding yourself away from yourself.
This sounds time-consuming and all-absorbing. How can a pastor help members of her or his congregation do this work when the pastor doesn’t have an outlet for her/his own grief?
If a pastor is to be a healing presence, he or she must find a way to grieve – through prayer, writing, listening to music, and by finding people to share the burden of grief and maybe even loss of faith during this process. Whether these people are trusted friends or family or spiritual directors, or even occasionally, an older church member, or a book the pastor has read (I would hope, like Wild Things), this is so important. Somehow, we rest on a bed of one another’s prayers, even in the easiest of times. We who do not even know each other support each other in God. It seems odd, I know, but believe me, it is true. I will tell you this, though. A pastor who does not know how to grieve from personal experience is going to have a hard time comforting anybody.
How easy I’ve seemed to make this sound to do, though, and it just isn’t for anybody. Grieving is something we all have to go through. We have it in common with one another, and for me, my shared experience with the rest of the human race is a great comfort.