The Unexpected Blessing
Most of us, if we could look at someone whose life had been one great triumph after another, someone who had known very little sorrow, would say: How lucky! That’s the way to live! So it comes as quite a shock when Jesus says in the second Beatitude: “Blessed are they that mourn,” or, in the words of a modern version, “How happy are those who know what sorrow means.” It simply doesn’t occur to us that we should congratulate someone whose face is wet with tears — and in fact we shouldn’t because the moment of heartbreak is never the right time to talk about future blessings. I have heard well-meaning friends tell people in deep grief that it’s not as bad as they think, that some blessing will come from their sorrow, and I’ve thought, “I hope that when tragedy strikes my life, no one will [pick that moment to say such things to me, because I’m not sure I could control myself.” The accident that turns a child into a paraplegic, the cancer that steals a wife too soon, the death-in-life of Alzheimers — these are terrible things, and when they are fresh the last thing we need is some glib little piece of philosophy meant to diminish our grief. I watched a dear friend of mine slam his fist against a wall in hopeless frustration and heartbreak one day, while a well-meaning comforter was telling him how blessings would come from his tragedy by and by. Some did, but that was not the moment to hear about them. The comfort we need when grief is fresh is a hug, a handclasp, a freshly-baked pie brought from across the street — but not a little sermon about how it isn’t as bad as we think and by and by we’ll understand. Because right then it’s worse than anyone can think, and we don’t want to understand it….we just need to scream out our pain at the terrible grief that tears our whole body apart. We’re not ready for hope. It isn’t the time yet to try for a Happy Face while someone preaches: “Blessed are they that mourn.”
And yet, the one who spoke this hard word was both wise and compassionate, and I think he told the truth: that even out of sorrow there can come, there almost invariably will come, some unexpected blessings. Not the return of what you lost, and for which you would gladly give up the compensatory blessings, but some new depth in yourself, some richer knowledge of how priceless love and life are so that from that day forward your life will bless other lives in ways it could not have done before. It isn’t a trade we would have chosen. It isn’t something we particularly wish to hear, this “Blessed are they that mourn.” Ours is not a culture which is very comfortable with grief. In the case of death, all too often, it is packaged commercially for us: an hour or so of public ceremony, perhaps, then we get back to our lives and hope the surviving wife or husband, father or mother will recover in private as soon as possible. In Nashville some years ago a funeral director opened the first drive-through service, so mourners could cruise in and pay their last respects without getting out of their cars. It makes sense for those who regard grief as the enemy of the good life — an unfortunate interruption, an awkward lapse in the endless party; who instead of saying, “It’s too bad about your father; what you need to do is take as long as you need to grieve,” are as likely to say, “It’s too bad about your father; what you need now is a night out on the town.”
But Jesus said grief is not only natural but can hold a hidden blessing, a wisdom as deep as joy, if not deeper. Oscar Wilde had found it out, 19 centuries later: “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” We’re not expected to go looking for sorrow, of course, but then we don’t need to: inevitably, it finds us . We’ve lost parents and children and siblings and friends….and in different kinds of separation we have lost certain hopes and dreams and illusions. Judith Viorst, whose book Necessary Losses is a classic, reminds us that “When we think of loss we think of the loss, through death, of people we love. But loss is a far more encompassing theme in our life. For we lose not only through death, but also by leaving and being left, by changing and letting go and moving on. And our losses include not only our separations and departures from those we love, but our conscious and unconscious losses of romantic dreams, impossible expectations, illusions of freedom and power, illusions of safety — and the loss of our own young self, the self that thought it always would be unwrinkled and invulnerable and immortal.”
We are not stones, without a story to tell. We are living organisms and change is the only constant we live with. God made the world to move under us, sometimes even to drop out from underneath us. Nothing stays the same. I don’t know how it is for you, but this always seems most poignantly true for me in late October. My neighbor across the street rakes the fallen leaves and I notice that his hair is almost completely gray. It wasn’t when we moved into our house. Another neighbor plays in his front yard with two small children, and I suddenly miss the laughter of other children who for years spilled outside to play from my own house….and I understand how powerless we are before the running feet of time, and how the one thing we know for sure is that one by one the leaves fall. How are they blessed who mourn, I ask myself, and how shall they be comforted? And how, especially, in that greater grief when instead of time and distance that keeps us apart from those we love, it is death that does it?
Once, while sitting around with a group of ministers in a forum about grief and loss, a friend of mine began to talk openly for the first time about what happened when he lost his mother. His father had always been a strong, take-charge kind of man, in control, stoic, apparently beyond fear and frailty. But when his wife died, he collapsed into helplessness. The night after the funeral, the father went to bed, and my friend stayed up in the living room working on a sermon. In a little while, he said, there was a shuffling noise in the hallway, and his father suddenly appeared in the door, looking scared. “Son,” he said apologetically, “I can’t go to sleep. I have slept beside your mother every night for forty years, and I can’t bear to be by myself. Would you sleep with me tonight?” My friendtold us he did that before leaving the next morning to go back to his own home in another state — and then for a long moment he looked somewhere beyond the rest of us in the room and said as if to himself, “Life is so wonderful….and sometimes so terrible.”
It’s true, and if it weren’t so wonderful it could never be quite so terrible. And maybe this is partly what Jesus had in mind when he pronounced a blessing on those who mourn, knowing that all who dare to give themselves to life with passion and sensitivity will be impaled on its inevitable thorn, but will also have known great joy that comes in no other way. If you choose to love, someone may betray you….if you choose to have children, they may somehow be lost….and then you will have to decide whether you agree with Lord Tennyson who declared in his great grief, that “it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” In his case the death of his dearest friend made life seem absolutely worthless for a while, and yet, by and by, out of that grief cameIn Memoriam , the long elegy many consider his greatest poem.
Joy and sorrow — Siamese twins, joined inseparably. I’ve remembered many times over the years how the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran lights up our Beatitude: “The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was often filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart and you shall see that you are weeping for what has been your delight. Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘No, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, They are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your table, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”
It’s not an easy truth, and it leads some people to shrink from life, to avoid as much pain as possible by avoiding passionate feelings. Like the Stoics they say, in effect, ‘Restrain your love for people and places, and then you won’t be overwhelmed by losing them.’ The only problem is that as you shrink from possible pain, you shrink from the possibilities of life as well. In my first year of university teaching I met an exchange student, a Japanese girl, who was mortally afraid of germs. She wore white gloves on campus, in class, even in the cafeteria — and often she wore a mask over her nose and mouth. So far as I could tell, she never caught a cold….or a single goodnight kiss. I think it was Shakespeare who wrote, “Each time we love, we turn a nearer and broader mark to that keen archer, Sorrow, and he strikes.”
And yet, in life’s painful paradox, the arrow is often tipped with an unforeseen blessing. More than once I’ve seen families brought closer together by sorrow than by celebration and success, sometimes a wife and husband who had drifted apart holding hands at the grave of a child, ashamed of the trivialities that had separated them, taught more by grief than by any joy they had known. Maybe this is why tragedy has always been seen as a higher form of literary art than comedy. A French proverb says, “To suffer passes away: but to have suffered never passes.” Some treasure remains in the heart, some clarity of vision, some new depth of understanding which became an abiding source of comfort — to yourself, and to those who come to know you.
If you want a lesson in that, take a look sometime at a portrait of Louis 14th of France: fleshy, sensual of face, a man of innumerable successes who got most of what he wanted. Then look at the lean, lined features of a man with brooding eyes named Abraham Lincoln and hear the words Stephen Vincent Benet gives Lincoln in his epic poem: “I am a patient man, and I can wait….That is my only virtue as I see it: ability to wait and hold my own, and keep my own resolves once they are made, in spite of what the smarter people say. I can’t be smart the way they are smart. I’ve known that since I was an ugly child. It teaches you — to be an ugly child.” And once again, the paradox: out of sorrow, something bright and shining born. A child laughed at because he wa ugly, a heart that found the way to patience and wisdom in secret pain, a face scored by the sorrow of that and other griefs, and finally a man who was right for the hour when his nation passed through its deepest sorrow.
But was he himself blessed, as the Beatitude has it? Was he happy? Can we answer it before we have thought long and hard about what happiness really is. You should stand, sometime, before the great statue of Lincoln in Washington and ponder what it means to be happy. The Arabs have their own form of our beatitude: “All sunshine makes a desert.” Think what it means: the streams of compassion dry up in us when all our days are sunnys….our eyes grow blind in that constant light….our hearts bake into hardness, and nothing green and soft and lovely can grow. Sir Edward Elgar heard a young girl once with a beautiful voice and faultless technique, a girl who just missed being splendid. He said, “She will be great….when something happens to break her heart.”
Our beatitude says the spear that wounds you may also be tipped with new life, that the dark you fear may show stars the sunlight had hidden. I invite you to remember that, and to remember a certain promise when summer passes and the leaves of October fall: “Blessed are those who have known sorrow, for they shall be comforted.” A certain woman in a small Oklahoma town, lost a son to AIDS not long ago. In that little place it was very hard for her to be honest about what was happening. She was afraid to tell her friends, her co-workers, even – tragically – her church. But this is what she said when the long ordeal was over: “Kurt’s death enriched our lives because we faced it, learned from it, and discovered the essential message of the gospel: God redeems suffering.” Don’t look for logic in those words. They spring from a stubborn faith that in some strange and awful way it turns out to be true: “Blessed are they that they mourn.”
May the words spoke this day have thrown light on some dark page we had not been able to comprehend, or accept, and bless us through Him in whose name we have worshipped. Amen.