The Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew contains wisdom for the living of these days, such as they are. Last week, I commented on the first beatitude. So today I’m turning to the second: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Quite frankly, I’d rather skip this one. Mourning is hard. In an alternate universe, grief would be completely contrary to the happy, carefree and positive person I imagine myself to be. But that’s another universe. I’m not alone in my experience of grief. Everyone grieves — everyone. Loss is universal. It’s always traumatic, always grief-inducing and always life-draining. While no one wants to mourn, it’s practically a requirement of living.
There’s a book by C.S.Lewis that I have turned to for consolation and comfort more than any other book save for the bible itself. In A Grief Observed, Lewis records journal-style, his descent into grief after the death of his wife, Joy. His unabashed honesty is sometimes brutal, but even at my lowest point, I valued how candid he was. In the middle of his journey through grief, Lewis wonders about God. He asks: "Why is he so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?" Earlier, in a work called, The Problem of Pain, Lewis writes as an observer of pain, someone who regards it from outside the process and he is able to see how very close God is to those in pain. But in A Grief Observed, Lewis writes from an insider's point of view - and it feels quite different.
Grief is spiritual – the pain is felt in our souls. And the essence of the pain is singular; it’s not like blunt force trauma or a burn or a cut or physical illness, though there are similarities. Grief is a profound sadness where the pain is caused by emptiness; the absence of something that once took up valuable space in our souls. The pain is a void in the deepest part of our selves. This is why most mourners experience a profound sense of absence and not divine presence. It's a paradox for certain, because the void of grief is exactly where God resides. A wounded, vulnerable heart is fertile ground; a broken-heart has space to fill.
It’s in this divine-filling of the void that grief can be transformative, but this is not usually a fast process. Transformation can take a long, long time. It’s not universal either; some never allow God to fill the void; they remain captive to the dark space and allow bitterness and resentments to take hold. Transformation takes place over time when we allow the void of grief to be filled with light and love and gratitude and goodness.
Like the first beatitude, the blessing is not in the wretched state of mourning per se, but rather in the consequence that arises from it. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Comfort is not something we can do for ourselves - though we might try to deaden the pain. We can receive comfort and we can give comfort. Unfortunately, people are often not very comforting to other people, well-meaning as they may be. Those who offer the best comfort do so just by their presence. The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva affirms this. The Greek word translated here as 'comforted' is parakaleo: to encourage, to console. But the word also has a sense of invitation and summons; to be changed through the experience – transformed.
One of the most striking realizations about grief is that God grieves with us. Not in a blubbering, puffy-eyed sort of way, but in a deeply, profound spiritual sort of way. God is not so immutable as to be without emotion. All our talk about “almighty” and “all powerful” scrubs the divine image too clean. These words remove the possibility of intimacy. Remember that Jesus wept outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus. God is closer than our breath. When we grieve, God grieves with us.
There have been times when I was in such despair that words would not come. I’d open my mouth and nothing would come out. I couldn’t even find the breath to pray. Scripture says: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” When words won’t come, the Spirit of God – the Comforter, steps in. That is consolation for a wounded, grieving soul.
Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Blessed are those who mourn. For they shall be comforted.