Blessed Are Those Who Mourn
Stories Seldom Heard
235th Edition February 2019
Matthew 5: 4 Blessed Are Those Who Mourn
When many of us were growing up we studied the Baltimore Catechism. The Catechism both asked questions and gave us answers which we dutifully memorized. But over the years, like many of you, I have found new ways to articulate the basic mysteries of our faith. One of these mysteries is grace. Grace, according to the Baltimore Catechism, is a free gift given to us by God through the merits of Jesus Christ. Grace helps us become the people God desires us to be. However, because of my new understanding of grace, I can more readily recognize its presence in my daily life. Some of the following insights about grace have helped open my imagination and enabled me to better speak of my experience of grace. Perhaps the following quotes might also be helpful for you.
“Grace stands at the door and knocks without ceasing. She always runs ahead and awaits our arrival to offer us help.”
“Grace means we’re in a different universe from where we had been stuck, when we had absolutely no way to get there on your own.”
“After we jump into the darkness of the unknown, faith (or grace) lets us believe that we will either land on solid ground, or we will be taught how to fly” (1).
What is the relationship between grace and grief? Loss never feels like a blessing. None of us would ever say to a grieving parent, spouse or even a stranger who has experienced the death of a loved one, “how blessed you are.” Losses can be devastating. They are life changing. There is always a gap that will never be filled. However, we who have gone through losses know some of their secret blessings.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison says, “…nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try and find anything. We must simply hold out and win through…leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but keeps it empty so that our communion with one another may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain…the dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude converts the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy” (2).
There are many kinds of loss: physical separation, sickness, betrayal, loss of memory. Gerald May was a psychiatrist and theologian who wrote a well-known book entitled The Dark Night of the Soul (3). The title of May’s book alludes to the theology of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, but May puts a slightly different lens over our eyes as he examine their insights. He begins with a brief story about his own sufferings and the blessings they brought him, even though they were not at first evident. As he tells his story, May invites us to reflect on our own experiences. Like Gerald May, none of us have been sheltered from life’s struggles, disappointments and even tragic loses. All of us have felt, at one time or another, that we have had to start all over again.
These experiences can make us fearful, angry and/or despairing, but these difficult situations can also lead us to new life and deeper joy if we give them the careful attention they need. In fact, they can be a grace in disguise and an unexpected blessing as they were for May.
May gives a poignant example from his life. Seven years before he wrote the book he was diagnosed with cancer – clearly bad. The experience, however, brought him closer to God and the people he loved the most. He knew that would never have happened had he not been so ill. There was the chemotherapy – terrible. He felt awful. He lost his hair, became totally dependent on others. It was an extremely difficult period in his life, but he counted the insights he gained about himself as a blessing and a great gift. In a profound way, he began to realize that the most important things in life are not in our control. He also realized another truth: we don’t have to look for spiritual lessons with every struggle that comes our way. There are spiritual lessons to be learned, but they usually come to us in brief insights in the course of our lives.
I wonder if any of this resonates with you? It does with me. Yet, we know that not everyone who suffers from a serious illness as Gerald May describes or who has experienced serious set-backs comes to life-affirming insights. Yet, it is in this void that grace begins her usually slow and tedious, but life-giving work. Grief can break open our self-centeredness. It can help us realize that we are not self-sufficient. Because grief catches us off guard, it gets our attention. It is like a gardener who shakes loose the dirt to which our shallow roots cling. When that happens and our tender roots are exposed, by necessity we examine what sustains us and holds our lives together.
Wendell Berry puts it this way: “It may be that when we no longer know/What to do/ We have come to our real work/ And that when we no longer know/ Which way to go/ We have begun our real Journey/ The mind that is not baffled/ Is not employed/ The impeded stream/ Is the one that sings.” (4)
Even though grief is painful, the opposite of mourning is deadly. If we are numbed to pain, indifferent to the sufferings of others, we are not living life fully, let alone living the life of Christ. Mourning leads to prayer, to deeper understanding and listening, not just to God, but also to others. Because grief reveals our frailty and our loves, it helps us understand how easily we can destroy, through careless actions and words, the hopes and dreams of others. Grief enlarges our hearts and expands our vision so that we can see other people’s sufferings with new eyes and respond with compassion. According to Meister Eckhart this is the sign of true prayer. “The end of all prayer is compassion.”
- Ann Lamott is the author of many fine books. In Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Penguin Group, New York, New York. 2005.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: The MacMillan Company. 1967.
- The Dark Night of the Soul, Gerald G. May, M.D., Harper San Francisco. Page 47. 2004. Gerald May also wrote Addiction and Grace.
- Wendell Berry, “The Real Work”, poem.
“Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection.