On Sadness and Grief in Human Life
Fr. Thomas Hopko · November 15, 2009
God grieves, we grieve, and life is often permeated with sadness. What does this mean when we also contemplate the "joy" of the Christian life?
We’ve been reflecting, a few times now, on anger—the wrath of God and the anger of man. “The anger of man doth not work the righteousness of God.” But we did say that anger is both a virtue and a vice. It’s a good thing and a bad thing.
There’s the anger that’s motivated by love, which is like the divine anger. And that is appropriate. That’s something you can’t even control very much. It just comes upon you when a person sees wickedness or injustice or evil or things about which in loving person would be angry.
And we know that God gets angry; the Lord Jesus Christ gets angry. Saints get angry. Holy people are angry. But there is an anger without sin. It’s possible to fulfill the commandment of God in Psalm 4 and in Ephesians letter. “Be angry, but do not sin.”
But there is an ungodly anger too—the anger that comes when we’re just not getting our own way, the anger when we feel offended, or the anger when people treat us badly or the anger when we are not praised or pitied or whatever we want from people; anger when our material or carnal needs are not satisfied. And then we get angry.
Or we could be angry over our own life, angry over the way things are with us. And that’s not godly. That is not according to God. Now when we consider these things, we know that anger in the Bible and anger in the writings of the apostles and in the writings of the saints, the writings of the Church Fathers, it’s often, virtually always, coupled together with grief or with sadness.
Anger and sadness go together. So the grieving is also very similar, when we think about grieving or sadness, to the same kind of dynamic we think about in terms of anger. There is a godly grief and there is a non-godly grief. There is a grief that is produced by love, love of God and love of neighbor, and then there’s a grief that comes from self-love, just wanting what we want.
So the same way we can be angry, by not getting our own way and getting what we want and feeling hurt and offended and deprived, the feeling of grief and sadness can come in the very same way. But that’s considered to be ungodly.
Now in the Holy Scripture, we know that there is, not only the anger of God, the wrath of God, but God grieves. In Isaiah for example, Isaiah has God saying, “I drench with tears over my people when they are going astray.” I drench them with tears. I grieve over them.
In fact in the New Testament, there’s even an admonition not to grieve the Holy Spirit, not to cause grief to the Spirit of God, not to cause God grief. And sometimes the saints and holy people speak about that way when they speak about our human behavior . They say, let us behave so that we do not anger God. Let us behave so that we do not grieve God or displease God or make God sad.
Thérèse of Lisieux, a Western Roman Catholic saint, I just love her. I think she’s a marvelous, absolutely extraordinary person, very much misunderstood it seems to me also. But she always does say to her friends, let’s try to make Christ smile. Let’s make the Lord be happy with us. Let’s not grieve the Lord.
He’s got enough grief. He’s got enough grief over the sins of the world, the sins over the disbelievers, the sins over the ungodly. But let us who claim to believe in Him, not cause him to be sad. Let’s cause Him to smile.
And we even have psalm-prayers like that. “Smile upon us, O God.” “Let the light of thy countenance shine on us.” “Let us be worthy of your delight in our behavior.” So God is grieving, just as God is angry.
Now when it comes to human grief, we can simply fill in the blanks, so to speak, by just saying the same things that we said already about anger. Of course it’s obvious, because grief is not anger. But the dynamic as I said, the way we look at it, is exactly the same.
Now when we mention that anger and grief often goes together, it’s interesting that the Holy Fathers allegorically, or spiritually, interpret certain lines in the Old Testament this way. When it says, for example, in the Old Testament, Psalm 66 says “We went through fire and through water, yet you brought us forth to a spacious place.”
And the Church Fathers would interpret that spiritually by saying, the fire is the anger and the water are the tears. So you brought us through anger and you brought us through tears. And life, in some sense, is a kind of constant combination of anger and tears, good ones and bad ones, godly ones and ungodly ones.
But the psalmist says to God, “We went through fire and through water, but you brought us forth to a spacious place.” And this broad place, this large spacious place, is considered to be the place of peace, the place of dispassion, the place of comfort. And so this fire and water is interpreted that way. St. John Climacus does it, for example, and others do it too.
And the fire and water imagery you find in the prophet Isaiah. For example Isaiah says the following,
Fear not, for I have redeemed you, says the Lord God. I have called you by name. You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned. And the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
So God says I’m with you when you’re going through the waters and the rivers and through the fires and the flames. And again, allegorically, the saints would say that means when we’re going through all that causes us anger, causes us sadness, the fires and the waters, God brings us through. He is with us. He is with us in our angers. He is with us in our grieving.
Now what we have to see also is to speak a little bit more about this godly and ungodly grief. And here we have a very specific passage of the New Testament, which all of the Church Fathers comment on a lot, whenever they are dealing with grief.
Grief in Greek is lupe. That passage is in 2 Corinthians. St. Paul had written to the Corinthians, rebuking them for lots of their behaviors. And then apparently these Corinthians were not happy with St. Paul, and they were offended at him and they were grieved over what he wrote them.
And so he writes them a second letter, where he says that I want you to be comforted. He speaks about comfort quite a bit there, that God comforts the downcast; he comforted us by the coming of Titus, that he will comfort us, and he will comfort you. And he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me and I rejoiced.
But then St. Paul says to them, I rejoice that we’re still in contact; I rejoice that you can be comforted. But I want you to know, he said, when I gave you rebuke, I did it, not to hurt you, not to harm you, but to lead you into repentance. And so this is exactly what he says:
As it is I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting, for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. So foresee what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourself, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment. At every point you have proved yourself guiltless in this matter. So although I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong, but on account of the one who suffered the wrong. But in order that your zeal for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God, and that therefore we might all be comforted.
So he says that there is an ungodly grief, and there is a godly grief. The godly grief, the godly sorrow, hopefully brings us to repentance, but the ungodly grief just leads to death. Now it’s interesting that these expressions, godly grief and ungodly grief, in Greek is put this way. You have lupe kata Theon or kata Theon lupe, the sorrow that is according to God, that is appropriate to God.
And then you have the tou cosmo lupe, the lupe tou cosmo. It’s the sorrow of this world, the sorrow of the world, worldly sorrow. So these are the two kinds of lupe. These are the two kinds of grieving, the kata Theon lupe and the lupe tou cosmo. And the one is good and the other is not good.
The one is appropriate and necessary and leads to repentance and leads to glory of God, and as the Holy Scriptures say, St. Paul said it, ultimately to comfort, ultimately to rejoicing, to joy itself, joyfulness. Whereas the other tou cosmo lupe, sadness and grief according to the world, that just brings more suffering, more distress, more discomfort. And if we persist in it and hold onto it, we can actually say that it is Hell itself. It’s the grief of Hell itself that is there.
Now it’s interesting to note that in the writings of the saints, you have this teaching brought up quite a bit. You have this teaching for example in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Let me just find here St. Syncletica. It’s a very nice quotation of one of the Desert Mothers. Amma St. Syncletica, in her writing she quotes St. Paul. She refers to St. Paul on this very issue. This is what she says. It’s Saying Number 27 of Amma, Mother, St. Syncletica of the Egyptian Desert. She says:
There is grief that is useful, and there is grief that is destructive. The first sort consists in weeping over one’s own faults and weeping over the weakness of one’s neighbors, in order not to destroy one’s purpose, and to attach oneself to the perfect good. But there is also a grief that comes from the enemy, full of mockery, which some even call accidie. This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and by psalmody.
Accidie means despondency, loss of all hope, lethargy, where you can’t do anything. You don’t want to do anything, because you’re just so overcome with remorse. So the Holy Mother speaks about these two kinds of grief also, the one that leads to comfort and joy and the one that leads to despondency and ultimately destruction and even death and even Hell itself.
Now in commenting on this lupe, this grief, or another word in the Holy Scripture would be penthos. There are several words that mean this godly grief. Penthos is usually translated mourning; it’s also a verb, to mourn. So for example in the Beatitudes, you have “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” And that’s penthos.
And St. John Climacus in his book, The Ladder, he has long, very long, it’s one of the longest sections in the whole Ladder. The two longest sections in The Ladder, one has to do with pornea, lust and sexual sin, on chastity, and the other one has to do with this mourning, blessed mourning.
But St. John Climacus, he calls this godly mourning or godly grief, chara peon penthos. Chara peon means joy-producing. It’s kind of the mourning that ultimately produces joy. And he even says in that section of the book, The Ladder, the joy and the mourning are even mixed together in this world. They always go together.
And he even says that the godly grief, the godly sadness, is always mixed together with a joy in God. For example, we rejoice in God. We know how loving God is. We know how merciful God is, and therefore that produces tears, dakria. Tears is a big word there too. You have sorrow, grief, mourning, in the word tears or weeping, to weep.
And he says that the joy in God produces the weeping over sin, over the sin of the world, over the sins of our neighbors, over the sins of ourselves. This is the kind of weeping. But he says that weeping is always mixed together with joy. In fact, that kind of weeping is even produced by joy. You rejoice in God, and therefore you weep over sin.
And when you weep over sin and mourn in a godly manner, then you are comforted by God. You are happy, makarios. You are happy if you are thus mourning, because God will then comfort you. God can comfort you. But God cannot comfort you if your grief is ungodly
If we’re just weeping and sad and unhappy and crying because our carnal appetites are not satisfied, and we’re not being pitied or praised. My friend Father Paul Lazor and I, we used to always speak about “PP.” You’ve got to flee the “PP.” Well, the “PP” is the praise and the pity.
If we want praise from people and if we want pity from people, we want people to say “Oh how wonderful we are” or people to say “Oh how hard you work,” forget it. We’ll never get it. And if we are angry and sad because people don’t praise us; people don’t pity us, we’re in the hands of the devil. We’re not in the hands of God because that produces only despondency. That produces only more anger. It produces only more sorrow. And in that situation, God himself cannot comfort us.
How could God comfort us when we are sad over not getting our way? If our sadness is produced by our sinfulness, how can God comfort us? If he forgives the sin, and we stop being sad and angry over our sins, I mean not over our sins in the sense that we can commit them, but if we stop being angry and sad because we are sinning and not being satisfied that what we want, that is sinful, is being given to us, then there’s nothing even that God can do. That is simply Hell itself.
So there is this godly grief and the ungodly grief. Now if we wanted to have a kind of example of how does godly grief work, what would be the quintessential, the paradigmatic, the most perfect example of godly grief? Well here the answer would be what the answer always is, it would be the grief of Jesus Himself. If we wanted to know what godly grief is, we look at Jesus Christ.
Now when we look at Jesus Christ, our Lord, we know that Jesus wept. We know that Jesus was sad. We know that Jesus grieved. The same way that we know that He was angry, so we also know that He was sad.
Now there are three specific places in Holy Scripture, where it specifically says that Jesus was grieving. It even says that Jesus was weeping. Now one of them is when He is grieving over the city of Jerusalem. And in fact, if you go to Jerusalem now, you go to the Holy Land now, you go to that place, I think the Roman Catholics are the ones who have a place there, overlooking Jerusalem, where it’s even called “The Place of Tears,” the place where Jesus wept.
Now actually in the text of the New Testament on this point, it does not specifically say that He wept. But it does say that he was very sorrowful, that he looked over Jerusalem and He was very sorrowful. I will get that and read it for you just now. This is what we find there. It’s in Matthew, and it’s in Luke. And this is what we do find in the Holy Scripture. It’s where He says:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How often I would have gathered you together. For you killed the Prophets, and you stoned those who were sent to you. How often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her children under her wings, but you would not. Behold your house is left to you desolate. For I say to you, you shall not see me henceforth, till you shall say “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.”
That’s Matthew, and we have the same in Luke. And what he is saying over Jerusalem, that he is sorrowful over Jerusalem, because he sees the evils of Jerusalem. They killed the prophets, stoned those who are sent, and Jesus says, “How often I would have gathered you together.” And here we could say, He’s speaking in the Name of God.
He’s speaking as God in this sense, because God Almighty is grieving over Jerusalem all the time. Even when He’s chastening Jerusalem and razing it to the ground, it’s only so that He would raise it up again, so that the people would be chastened, that they would repent, that they convert, that they would stop worshiping the idols and would worship the one true God, and stop following their own mind, but would follow the commandments of God.
So He says, I would have gathered you together, but you would not. You just would not. And then He says, you won’t see me anymore. Your house is going to be desolate. In fact, the city is going to be razed to the ground after Jesus is crucified and glorified, and the Temple is never to be restored. It’s over.
There’s now a new Jerusalem, a Jerusalem above, a Jerusalem in the heavens. That’s the eternal Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem who St. Paul says is our mother, who now comforts us. We don’t comfort it; it comforts us—the heavenly Jerusalem. But Jesus is sorrowful over Jerusalem. And although it doesn’t say it in so many words, the tradition is that He weeps over the city of Jerusalem.
We can generalize that and say that Jesus is weeping over all those who don’t accept God’s prophets. He’s weeping over all sinners. Jerusalem of course, and the Jews generally stand for the whole of humanity, all the time. There’s this unique place of the Jews on planet Earth. They’re the nation that stands for all the nations, and God chooses them to redeem all the nations and all the peoples of the whole world through them. But He weeps over them.
And we can say, without any doubt, that Jesus’ sorrow over Jerusalem, is a sorrow over the whole world. It’s a sorrow over sins in general, the sins of men. And we know as St. Paul says that, “The wages of sin is death.” It brings destruction. It brings desolation. “I will leave you desolate.” So we have this example of Jesus’ sorrow.
Then, we have the example in St. John’s Gospel, the one I think that everybody cannot possibly forget, and that is how Jesus is very sorrowful over the sickness and ultimately the death of his friend Lazarus, the one He says that He loved. It says Jesus loved Lazarus. He loved Mary and Martha, his sisters. And that when he heard that Lazarus was sick and even unto death, He goes there.
And then we know, and this is in St. John’s Gospel Chapter 11, when Jesus comes there, He finds Mary and Martha weeping. Martha runs out to him; she’s weeping. She says, if you had been here my brother would not have died. And then Mary comes, and she’s also weeping. And then those who are with her are also weeping.
You have this incredible sorrow over this dead man. And then it says in St. John’s Gospel:
When Jesus, therefore, saw her (Mary) and the Jews also weeping, those who came with her, He groaned in His spirit and He was troubled. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him,
“Lord, come and see.”
And then you have this sentence, edakrusen o iesous, Jesus shed tears. edakrusen o iesous means shed tears. It says “Jesus wept.” Sometimes this is said to be the shortest verse in the Bible. I don’t know if it is or not, but John 11:35, “Jesus shed tears.” He weeps over Lazarus.
Now He weeps over Lazarus, knowing that He will raise him from the dead. But He also knows that He will raise Lazarus for more life in this world, only for more crosses. St. John Chrysostom points that out. He says, if we’re healed from sickness and if even we are raised from the dead in this world, we are raised for more crosses.
Actually, I’m recording on a Saturday today, and tomorrow there will be a Sunday. And the Sunday Gospel, tomorrow’s Divine Liturgy, is about the only son of the widow that Jesus raises from the dead, when the widow, in Nain, is left without any children and her boy is dead.
But some commentators say, this poor boy, he was dead, but he gets raised up again for what? To take care of his widowed mother. To be all alone with his widowed mother in this world. In fact, he’s raised for more suffering, more affliction, more crosses, more difficulties, more work, more labors.
So even Lazarus, himself, the stinking four day corpse, he’s raised for more labors and more suffering in this world. And according to Church tradition, he even dies a martyr. And we know from St. John’s Gospel that they try to kill him after he was resuscitated, after he was brought back to life in this world.
But Jesus weeps. He weeps, and here we can generalize this. We can make a theological conclusion. Jesus Christ and God Almighty is weeping over the diseased and sick and afflicted and suffering corpses of this world. Jesus is weeping over death.
And therefore we could say that godly grief, kata Theon, we could even say kata Christon, the grief according to Christ, according to God, will weep over death. It will weep over disease. It will weep over suffering.
And here we have to make this comment. It’s extremely important. There are some Christians who claim, we shouldn’t weep over suffering and death. Christ is risen. Christ is glorified. Christ suffered. He died for us. We should just be happy. When a person dies, we should just be happy.
In fact, I was even at a Church once where there was a grieving mother whose daughter had died at eleven years old, and they had come for the 40 day memorial when I happened to be at this Church. And the mother is weeping, and the father is weeping, and the grandparents are weeping, and everybody is weeping.
And the priest gets up there and he says, “Why are we weeping? Christ is risen. Truly, He has risen. Let us rejoice. Let us be glad.” And in my opinion, that is really terrible. That’s ridiculous. That’s even cruel. You got to weep first. You have to weep. If you can’t weep over suffering and death, you can’t rejoice and be comforted either.
Jesus said, “Blessed are they who mourn, they will be comforted.” And unless we mourn, we’re not comforted. You got to weep. You got to express what you feel. And here, again, the anger is the same thing. If we’re angry, we’ve got to express it. If we’re sad and sorrowful, we’ve got to express it.
We have got to weep. Jesus wept. That is not sinful. That is normal. That’s even godly. And no one can rejoice in the Resurrection of Christ who does not first weep over the Crucifixion. No one can rejoice in the forgiveness of sins, until they first weep over sin. So we’ve got to weep.
And it’s very interesting that in the New Testament, Jesus Himself—and that’s the third weeping that we will find of Jesus—He weeps in the Gethsemane Garden. When Jesus is praying in the garden, before His own Passion and Death, it says that He really was sorrowful. In fact it says He was super-sorrowful.
When we read about Jesus in the Gethsemane Garden, and He falls on His face and He prays, and, according to Luke, He even sweats blood. He says, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful.” You see lupesta is my soul, distressed it says, very sorrowful. It says “even unto death.”
And very sorrowful or deeply grieved, it says perilupos estin e psuche mou eos [Mark 14:34]. Deeply grieved, terribly sorrowful is my soul, even unto death itself. So Jesus is terribly sorrowful, super-duper-sorrowful, when He’s in the Gethsemane Garden. And He’s sweating blood and praying to God, because death is a horrible thing.
So we have to weep over death, and we weep over sin. And then we can rejoice that the sins are forgiven and the dead our risen, but not before. I always point out when I reflect on this and speak about it, is how the first martyr, Stephen, when he was stoned to death, that the Apostles, that the Christians buried him with great lamentation, it says in the Book of Acts.
When St. Benedict died, one of our great saints, it says his monks, his sons in the spiritual life, refused to be comforted. They had lost their father, that he was gone; he wasn’t there. That’s very sad. That is extremely sad.
And then of course, we always remember that St. John of Damascus wrote the Paschal Hymns that
we still sing in the Orthodox Church to this day. “It is the day of Resurrection. Be illumined all you people. Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord. From death to life. From Earth to Heaven.” That’s what we sing on Pascha that Christ is risen.
But that same St. John of Damascus wrote the verses that our sung at our funeral service. “What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What joy remains impassible on the Earth? All is a deluding dream. All is a passing shadow. Why are we wedded unto death? Certainly it is by the command of God,” who gives us the Resurrection, who gives us everlasting life.
But John of Damascus wrote the funeral song. And in fact, he wrote it because one of the monks in his monastery, when he was a monk in the monastery of Mar Sabbas in Palestine, had died. And he refused to be comforted, he was so sad that his brother died. And so apparently St. John Damascus, this great poet, he wrote these poems for his friend to try to comfort him in his grief.
And he got into big trouble by doing it because he wasn’t supposed to be writing poems. He was forbidden to do so. And when the abbot found out that he had wrote them, he punished him. He said you broke the rule. I told you, you’re not to do this. You’re to clean the toilets and say your prayers and sing your Psalms and give up this poetry, at least for now.
But then, according to The Life of St. John of Damascus, the Lord, or an angel, appeared to the abbot, he was told, “Let my nightingale sing.” And then the abbot allowed John to do his poetry, and therefore we have the Paschal Canon. We have many, many Church hymns from the hand of St. John of Damascus and from his heart, not just from his hand.
But we also have these mourning hymns that we sing at the funeral. “What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What joy remains impassible on the Earth?” And then you have the last one, “I weep and I lament when I contemplate death. Seeing God’s beauty lying in the grave, bereft of beauty and form.”
Well you got to weep. Jesus wept. We ain’t better than Jesus. And we have to weep. And it’s normal to weep. It’s godly to weep. But then, when we weep, we can be comforted. So we have these three weepings of Jesus: the weeping over Jerusalem, the weeping over the dead Lazarus, the weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane before His own Passion. This is godly grief.
But there is a fourth type of godly grief that Jesus Himself does not have, only we have. And that is the godly grief and the weeping over our sins, our own sins. Jesus does not have tears of repentance, because Jesus does not have to repent. Jesus does not have tears of compunction and contrition for His own sins, because He doesn’t have any sins. But we do.
And therefore, there is this type of godly grief that we have to have. And that is the grieving over our own sins. And here again, we cannot properly grieve over our own sins, in fact we cannot grieve over them at all, unless we know the love and the mercy and the goodness and the beauty and the truth of God.
There’s no way that we could know that we’re sinners unless we know God. There’s no way that we can weep over our faults and our misery unless we know the forgiveness and the mercy of God. So compunction, contrition, tears of repentance, they’re born of this double experience: God’s mercy and our misery.
We know our misery, but we know God’s mercy. In fact St. Seraphim of Sarov, even said that that’s one of the fruits of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Someone emailed me and asked me to speak on the radio about the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Maybe I will do that at some point. I hope so, God-willing.
But in any case, St. Seraphim would say, to have the Holy Spirit is to have the fruit of the Spirit: love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, fidelity, self-control. But then St. Seraphim says, “But if we have these virtues, then we will have blessed mourning too.”
Because if you have love and peace and joy and all this is given to you from God, you will necessarily weep over the sins of the world, over the stupidity of human beings, over the wretchedness of human life. And you will certainly weep over your own sins, because we will never have that fruit of the Holy Spirit, perfectly in this life.
So St. Seraphim says that to have the Holy Spirit is to have the contrition and the weeping over one’s own sins. But he added, when we are weeping over our own sins, we never, ever, ever fall into despondency or despair or darkness.
And that condition, according to the saints: Isaac of Syria, John Climacus, and all of them, would be that if our sins and knowledge of our sins lead us to despondency and darkness, then we’re in the hands of the devil, and we’re in Hell itself. Because why? Because the mercy of God is greater than our sins.
So we have to see our sins in the light of the mercy of God. And when we do, according to Climacus again, we will have this paradoxical experience. We will have the joy mixed with the grief. We’ll have the grief over our sins, but the joy over the forgiveness and mercy of God. And those two things have to be kept together.
And in fact, it’s even impossible to know the mercy and the love of God without knowing one’s own sins. In fact the Holy Fathers would say, to see yourself as you really are and to know your sins is not only a miracle greater than raising the dead, St. Isaac said that, but in a sense it is the resurrection of the dead.
Because when you see yours sins as they really are and really weep over them, but without despondency and despair because of the love and mercy of God, then you’re in Heaven. There’s a western saint, Teresa of Ávila, another Teresa, who said a very famous often quoted sentence. She said, “There are no sour-pussed saints.”
All saints radiate with joy. But we know that that’s true even with those, who for example Arsenios or Macarius, it says in their lives they actually had furrows on their faces from the tears pouring down their face. But they were filled with joy too. So that’s how it works. That’s how it goes together.
Now the tears over the sins of the world. The tears of compunction over the mercy of God, the tears over our own faults and sins that God forgives and that he takes upon Himself in the person of Christ, the tears over the Crucifixion of Christ Himself, these are not only godly and good; they’re absolutely necessary.
In fact, the services of our Church, for example in the beginning of Lent we have Church services that claim, “If you cannot weep, you cannot be saved.” If you are not a weeper, you are not a Christian. St. Gregory the Theologian said something that was repeated very often afterward. In fact, St. Seraphim repeated it directly.
He said, There are two things that are absolutely necessary for every human being, whoever they are.” Whether they’re rich or poor or smart or not so smart, or learned or not learned, whether they’re male or female, young or old, sickly or healthy, there’s two things that God requires of everyone.
That is prayer—and the claim is that you don’t even have to be righteous to pray. You can be a terrible sinner, but you’re still supposed to pray, and then when you do pray God forgives you. So prayer is for everyone. But St. Gregory the Theologian says edakre e pantes, “and tears are also for everyone.”
So prayer and tears, we all have to have it. And sometimes the tears are even called interior weeping. There are maudlin tears, sentimental tears. Some people can cry easily. Some people cry too easily as a matter of fact. They’re just emotional people. And actually according to the literature, they have to get over that. They have to work on that.
But there are the tears that are absolutely necessary. But here again, we would say not only are there interior tears, but there is certainly the teaching of the tradition that when we are weeping, when we are shedding tears, we have to do it in private.
Just like we’re commanded not to give alms to be seen by men, not to say prayers to be seen by men, not to fast to be seen by other people, so we are also not to weep to be seen by other people. And woe unto those who can turn off and turn on the tears at will, in order to receive pity and praise from other people.
So the real noble people, the godly people, they don’t flaunt tears. In fact, they try not to be seen weeping. But sometimes, you can’t help it. Sometimes, just the tears come. And when that happens, we can even say perhaps it’s the divine providence of God that those tears would be seen.
Jesus when he wept over Lazarus, they saw it. But Jesus didn’t turn on the tears in order to win praise and say, “Oh how he have loved him.” Well, they did say that, but still that’s true. But certainly, we try not to have phony tears or crocodile tears or maudlin tears or sentimental tears.
In fact one very long-suffering Christian person, Flannery O’Connor, she was a Roman Catholic writer; she died at the age of 38 from lupus; her father died when she was a child, she had terrible suffering in her life. She walked on crutches her whole life.
And her stories, in my opinion, are absolutely wonderful. I recommend everybody to read them. They’re very hard to read, and they’re very violent, very grotesque even. She said about her writing, “My stories are about the working of grace in territory largely held by the demons.”
But Flannery O’Connor wrote in her letters, she said, “Sentimental tears is the obscenity of the spiritual life.” Emotional tears are spiritual pornea. They’re just self-centered. They’re just for one’s own pleasures, just like lust is.
So sentimentality is not a Christian [virtue]. Emotional pious, what Mother Maria Giesy (sp?), one wonderful nun in the Orthodox Church in the end of the 20th century in Northern England, she wrote in her letters and coined an expression “piosity,” piousness, sentimentality where people are shedding tears and wiping their eyes and so and so. They say this is not of God.
This is not the tears of repentance. This is not the gift of tears, because the literature speaks about the gift of tears. The gift of tears is given to those who have the love of God and the love of neighbor in their life. The gift of tears is given to those who know the mercy of God and their own misery, and the misery of the world.
So there is the weeping, and the weeping goes together with the joy, and the joy goes together with the weeping. And so we could say, what is the opposite of grief. Well the opposite, in normal language, would be joy. But in the Christian life, there’s a greater paradox. You could say that the opposite of grieving is the difference between ungodly grief and godly grief.
The ungodly grief that produces destruction, discomfort, despondency, and death is from the devil. It’s not from God. But the godly grief, which is a gift from God, leads to comfort and joy, and it’s even produced by the joy and the mercy of God. And so this is what we want.
And then, when a person in this world is really joyful that will always be, as St. John Climacus said, “mixed together with godly grief.” So it’s not right to think, “Well, we grieve and grieve and grieve, but then the grieving is over and then the joy comes.”
Well, it does say in the psalm, “Mourning is for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” But that morning where the joy comes is in the Kingdom of God, yet to come. It’s not here. It’s here in foretaste, yes. We experience the joy of the coming Kingdom, where as it says in Isaiah, quoted in Revelation, the Apocalypse, quoted also in the Orthodox funeral service, “Where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor suffering, nor grieving. All the tears will be wiped away in the coming Kingdom of God.”
But in this world, until the Kingdom comes, the joy in God, of the coming Kingdom, is always mixed together with the tears: the tears of contrition, compunction, the tears of love, and the tears of repentance over one’s own sins and over the sins of the world.
So we should not think in our human life, before we die, that we’ll get to the point where we never grieve anymore. Oh no, that’s not true. In fact probably, the grieving will increase. It will increase as the joy of God in us increases. It will go together.
And that’s why the greatest saints shined with the light and the joy and the peace of God, like Seraphim of Sarov. But the greatest saints also had furrows and lines down the front of their face. We see them sometimes on the icons, Mary of Egypt for example and others, where the tears had actually produced drains on their faces because they could not stop weeping.
So the weeping and the rejoicing goes together. And in this life, they will always be together. Only in the age to come will the grieving be totally over, but in this life it’s not totally over. It’s mixed together with the joy. And that’s why, “Blessed are they who mourn.” Because when we mourn; there’s plenty to mourn over as we said, only then will we be comforted.
In fact there was a Russian poet, Mandelstam, who wrote beautiful poetry, and his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, wrote a book about hope under the Communists and Soviet Union. And she said, “If we can still weep, there’s hope for us. Fear the day. Mourn the day, when we can no longer scream and when we can no longer weep.”
We’ve got to express those things. And if we don’t express them, if we stuff them, if we keep them inside us, we will become mentally ill. In fact, I think it’s absolutely clear. It’s a fact. It’s a teaching. Even some Christian psychologists point this out, like Minrith and Meier.
When Christians think that they should not be angry, and that they should not grieve, and they stuff it in and say, oh God is with us. I don’t get angry. I should be peaceful. I should be joyful. I should be forgiving. I shouldn’t cry. He says, when that’s stuffed in them, first of all, it’s not the truth. it’s not according to Christ. It is insane actually. He says, but very often leads to clinical depression and to mental illness and even to hysteria and hallucinations.
So the anger and the tears, the fire and the water, that’s part of our life in this world. But our hope and prayer has to be that our anger and our tears, our anger and our sorrow and our grief, will be godly, kata Theon, kata Christon, according to God, according to Christ. And not tou cosmo, not according to this world, not of this world, whose form is passing away.
So we must go through the fire and the water. That’s part of it. No way around it. No way over it. We got to go through it. But we can go through it with God and Christ. And therefore we can have the anger and the tears that our appropriate to the children of God, the anger and the tears that God Himself has, the anger and the tears that God reveals to us in His Son, our Lord, and our Savior, who weeps over us, in order to bring us into the Kingdom where there are no tears, our Lord Jesus Christ.