The beginning of this series is a good place to start.
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
It seems unlikely that mourning as mourning would be valued. Is Jesus really telling us that all mourners, from whatever cause, will be comforted? This seems obviously false. In a larger spiritual time frame Jesus could be speaking of the Last Days; that in the end all earthly sorrow is comforted. But this seems a theological way of interpreting His saying as, “Just hang in there’, like that cat in that poster. As written earlier, we are resisting an eschatological interpretation of the Beatitudes. This approach betrays impatience, taking us past the here and now discipline the Master is guiding us through; replacing it with abstract hope. This misuse of ‘hope’ can take two forms. We either rush toward bliss, or we retire in contempt for this world. Though both dispositions in measure have their use and place, they can also be used to avoid spiritual work. It is not superior to diminish the value of our growth today because it is insignificant compared to the eternal union with God to come. Each part for its own time. Let eternity take care of itself for now, we have work to do today.
As said, it cannot be that all mourning is worthy. We must watch that we do not misuse or misconceive spiritual virtues. We will see as we progress that even spiritual gifts can become vices if we wander from discipline. In the case at hand, sometimes we mourn as sin. We mourn selfishly. We can even mourn the loss of opportunity to sin. Further, we have all known near professional mourners who use their constant state of sorrow to manipulate; as well as to avoid growth and responsibility. So we cannot see mourning as a good in itself. The mourning that receives a blessing transforms.
The progression from poverty in spirit to mourning is natural. It can be witnessed by many who have taken on Christian discipleship. Emptying ourselves, making ourselves vulnerable to Christ’s discipline, exposes our faults. It brings our vice and sin out of their hidden places, and makes us face them in the discomfort of a brightly lit room in front of a Master we cannot deceive. The mourning Jesus refers to here then is the root of repentance; a sorrow for our own wretched state and doings. Experiencing this sorrow is a necessary commencement for transformation in Christ. We can hold back guilt, we can justify our actions; there are always reasons for even the most hideous things we have done. It is no use resisting this experience of sorrow though. We cannot move in discipleship without it. But it is not there just to make us miserable. It may come as a surprise to some, both in and outside of the Church, but misery is not an end in itself in Christian development. This sorrow has a very definite purpose. It cleanses us.
Cynicism is a stagnating spiritual vice. Of course Post Modernity did not create this mood. We have perfected it though, and dole it out like dog treats to those who will sit and beg. Cynicism makes ease out of what should disquiet, trivializing what we should see as monstrous. It is a barrier to transforming sorrow. This may seem heavy handed; a bit to sanctimonious for an enlightened age. It may seem too much for us, or it may seem ignoble to care so much about what we have done before God and to others. (After all, what would Nietzsche think?) If we feel such, we needn’t go down this path. It is not necessary. But, if we are lured down this path by Christ, If we want true riches in Christ, we have no choice.
I jotted this verse some years ago, hoping it would become a song (it didn’t);
A farewell to to cynicism,
Is a welcome to sorrow.
Tears soak and loose filth from the heart,
Leaving what was not borrowed.
This insight came at the realization that putting away the smarmy self-protection I had lived behind for years did not lead immediately to peace (as hoped), but first to profound sorrow. We may think cynicism protects us form others. Much more it protects us from our deeper selves. This is the exact process we are seeing in these first beatitudes. We expose ourselves, we impoverish our spirit, and mourning flows naturally.
St James, I wish we had more of his writing, tells it better, that repentance must be felt viscerally to be efficacious. Light moods must be put down from time to time if we hope to grow, we must be brought low so we can be set back on our feet, new and stronger;
“. . . God resists the proud, but gives grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.” James 4:6-10
This sorrow is more an indication of spiritual searching than it is a good in itself. The sorrow response may be quite incomprehensible, and thus very hard to put into words. There will be things we are sorry for, even things we are sorrowful over, but the disturbance is more elemental than these particular misdeeds. We are confronted with our fallen nature, the malediction of original sin transmitted to us from generation through generation since the Garden. We did nothing to earn it. We did not ask for it. We don’t always want it. But there it is in us, and what are we to do?
We must remember that this sorrow is not our destiny. Even in this life it is not our permanent vocation, though some of us may need to spend a good deal of time, even years, in this phase of discipleship. Others will try to cheer us out of it. A sad disposition is a drag to live around. There is a feminine disposition to sooth pain. But this comforting may only exacerbate sorrow. As the consolation, “Don’t you know that the Lord is forgiving” may sound like an accusation of a lack of faith. These well meaning do not know that the sorrowful disciple is in catharsis. To rush or trivialize the process will only prolong it. Not all extended sorrow is transformative though. This road of the Beatitudes is precarious. We can loose our way and become mired down in, indeed addicted to, depression and sorrow. Because of the intensity of the feelings and the harshness of the judgement we are under, we may think that anything less is for wimps.
In the last post we disparaged a kind of Christian soteriological nihilism; a tendency to revel in our own desolation. As we have been considering, such spiritual states have strong feeling attending them, and these emotions may make us feel as if we are living in truth, as the only truth that matters is ‘I am a sinner in need of grace’. This is a fundamental realization for any Christian. (One that may take years to face profoundly.) However, remaining in such a state indefinitely amounts to sin itself. For though compared to God we are indeed small, we must in revived spiritual courage venture out of this self-abnegation. It may not seem possible, but there is even harder work ahead. These are just the first steps of discipleship, and we do not want to get stuck hanging around the entry indefinitely.
Comfort relieves us from these times of transforming sorrow. This is a gift of the Spirit, and justly so. We would not have fallen into sorrow but for the prompting of the Spirit, showing us our true nature, and the implication of our deeds. If we are willing to watch as the Spirit discomforts us, we must also be willing to follow as it leads us to confession and absolution—to comfort. The point of seeing our faults and even our fundamental flaw is to loosen us from their binding.
We are giving the second half of this Beatitude scant treatment. Perhaps in time this will be filled out in a larger treatment of the Beatitudes. For now, in order for the comfort of the Master to be restorative we must resist the two vices we have discussed above. We must watch seeking comfort too quickly; at the first pangs of sorrow. And conversely we need to accept this comfort intermittently in our discipleship and be refreshed. Ours is not a ‘Once saved you’re a new creature, and now good to go‘ fast track to salvation. We will revisit these stages of development codified in the Beatitudes over our whole lifetimes.
Cover Image: A Woman Weeping, Rembrandt