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Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted

February 1, 2014

morelli_beatitudes_righteousness_05On the surface of it, the opening words of this beatitude appear to be contradictory. For how could one who mourns be blessed, meaning free from harm or suffering? These two states—mourning and blessedness—seem to be so mutually exclusive that Saint Augustine once made the comment that “nothing is so akin to misery as mourning, and nothing so remote and contrary to misery as blessedness” (Exposition on the Psalms, Psalm 86).

The loss of a loved one can be a devastating experience that affects the way we think, feel, and behave in ways that certainly don’t seem positive. Grief often entails emotional distress, anger, despair, disbelief, sadness, numbness, loneliness, and feelings of helplessness. In losing someone we love, we lose a part of ourselves, making both our inner and outer worlds poorer and emptier. Some people who mourn become so preoccupied with yearning for the deceased, so angry and bitter about death, and so estranged from others that they may no longer be able to function and may need help learning how to accept the reality of death, honor the memory of the beloved, and continue on their journey. Given this modern psychological profile of mourning, how can those who mourn be blessed?

According to Saint Chromatius of Aquileia, “The blessed of whom [Christ] speaks are not those bereaving the death of a spouse or the loss of cherished servants. Rather, He is speaking about those blessed persons who do not cease to mourn over the iniquity of the world or the offenses of sinners with a pious, duty-bound sentiment. To those who mourn righteously, therefore, they will receive, and not undeservedly, the consolation of eternal rejoicing promised by the Lord.” (Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, PL 20.333). Clearly, the Lord is borrowing the word mourn from human experience, but filling that empty container with a new and paradoxically hopeful meaning beyond our painful experience of grief. Dark and lifeless words like mourning in the kinds hands of the Son and Word of God can be shaped into vessels of light and life that are truly blessed. Saint John Climacus describes the mourning of the beatitude as “a golden spur” that drives the soul to seek, to pine for, and eventually find her beloved, the source of all comfort, all joy, and all gladness  (The Ladder, step 7). There are kinds of yearnings, preoccupations, and even estrangements that can be a blessing in so far as they lead the soul to Christ. “Blessed are those who mourn” refers to precisely such a yearning for God, a preoccupation with things on high, and an estrangement from sin that lead to comfort (παράκλησις), literally meaning the calling of someone to stand at one’s side. The blessedness of mourning is in finding oneself at the right hand side of Christ.

In their commentaries on this beatitude, the holy fathers note that Christ is not referring to mere sadness over earthly losses, but over our ultimate spiritual state. Thus, Saint John Chrysostom writes, “He is not simply calling our attention to everyone who mourns, but to those who do so for their sins: since lamenting about those earthly cares of day-to-day life is strictly forbidden. Paul also clearly declared this when he said, ‘The sorrow of the world works death, but godly sorrow works repentance unto salvation, not to be repented of.’ And so, He Himself calls them blessed who have this kind of sorrow that is so intense that He does not use the word sorrow, but the word mourn, for this commandment again teaches us a philosophy for approaching all of life. After all, those who grieve for children, or wife, or any other departed relative no longer chase after profit or carnal pleasures during that painful period of time. They neither seek glory, nor are they provoked by insults. They are neither led captive by envy, nor beset by any other passion, for their grief alone wholly possesses them. How much more wisely then will those approach life who mourn for their own sins” (Homily 15 on Matthew, PG 57.233).

Thus, the mourning to which the Lord refers means that one’s mind, one’s heart, and one’s activities are turned completely and totally to Christ with such single-minded yearning and desire that sin loses its deceptive attractiveness, that what matters in life becomes crystal clear, and that every action is guided by a life of repentance. The Savior initiated His public ministry with the words, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Those who mourn are in that state of continual repentance, meaning a continual turning of the mind towards God that allows the grace of the Holy Spirit to overshadow and guide the human heart. This mourning of repentance is that joyful sorrow that pierces the heart, making it not only “a broken and a contrite heart that God will not despise” (Psalm 51:17), but also a heart that will be “restored to the joy of God’s salvation” (Psalm 51:12).

It is clear from the teaching of the holy fathers that in hearing the beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” mourning has a spiritual source and a spiritual goal.  Above all, this mourning is a matter of free choice by a sensitive heart. Even as being poor in spirit means choosing to be humble, so mourning means choosing to yearn for God and repent for one’s sins. It is philosophy in its truest sense of guiding one to a flourishing life. Through joy-making mourning, Christians become like kings and queens in their own hearts, they are clothed in a wedding garment that brings spiritual laughter to the soul, and they find their youth “renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5). In a wonderful way even their painful tears shed in life are “transformed into painless ones” as they receive fully the comfort of divine love (Saint John Climacus, Ladder, Step 7) promised and given to those who mourn.

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