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01/04/2011 07:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn: A Christian Understanding Of Grief

There is a somewhat aging caricature of masculinity that turns weeping into a source of shame, as though someone who cries lacks courage or the integrity to hold himself together. On the other side of the gender line, the caricature is of the hysterical, emotional and irrational female, who weeps senselessly and at anything. However, aside from the flawed notion of the Stoic male repressing emotion, or the implied sexist assumptions of the out-of-control woman unable to contain herself, grief and even weeping are not shameful, but are necessary for healing and expressing authentic human empathy and emotion.

As in the case of being materially poor, merely grieving is not virtuous itself, but the end to which it is directed, and the substance of that which we mourn over, imbues our grief with meaning. The primary sign of mourning is weeping, but why do we cry, if we cry?

In the Beatitudes as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus claims, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." This is an outrageous statement on the surface, and even, unless we are fully informed, an apparent contradiction, contrary to our experience of life. Happy are they who grieve?

Some might think that weeping itself is a manipulative trick, a childish ploy and shedding tears can indeed be exactly that. It is disgusting to see the crocodile tears of emotional manipulators -- whether it is done for religious or political purposes by either a Jimmy Swaggart or a Glenn Beck. Such deceit is repugnant to us because true weeping is an act that comes to us in moments of grief that embody the exact opposite of the pretensions of cynics and con artists, actors with ulterior motives who may play it off well and fool the gullible in the public eye, or others who are a little more obvious who may just want to extract sympathy from you and me for some other end. Fake tears turn us off because we intuitively know that real tears embody transparency, humility and the breaking down of walls.

A person who is filled with grief and is weeping and in true mourning is not concerned with what other people think of him, isn't trying to hide behind a mask, or to be involved in the egocentric pursuit of keeping it together. It is at that point of authentic and transparent exposed human personality, the juncture where mutual grief occurs, that we have an opportunity for communion, empathy, love and healing. But I think it is the nature of the ego, speaking of the ego as a false construct that isn't integrated with one's deepest sense of selfhood and is motivated by fear, to be afraid of exposure, afraid of tears, afraid of what others might think, afraid of communion, and afraid of healing, and so we have the cultural trope that describes tears and weeping as weakness. I think we are often deeply afraid of the threat of pain that is a path of healing.

If we do not know how to grieve, there is something unreleased and festering in our psyche, and we become angry; stagnating anger brews depression, and this leads to numbing habits, addictions, the occlusion of real emotion or feeling, constant criticizing of others, strife, endless complaints and a lack of peace.

Jesus speaks words of consolation to those who are in difficult situations or circumstances, who have suffered loss, since no one usually grieves without reason, and again, it turns out that the difficulty itself is the path of salvation. Not only that, but grief is transformed into an interior predisposition that brings us to God, a blessing that has its own implicit promise.

For those who do mourn, weeping itself is not virtuous. We might cry because we are in pain that we have brought upon ourselves, and we feel sorry for ourselves, filled with self-pity, the same kind of despair that sent Judas to his death. Or we might cry because we have insatiable hungers that we can never fill, so we mourn our lack. We might cry because we have no money. Or because we have few friends. We might cry because we can't pay the cable bill. There is weeping that leads to death, as Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians, self-centered sorrow that is really comprised more of fear, anger and bitterness than of grief in its most profound expression. In any case, whatever we grieve over reveals what we value.

So if someone who is poor in spirit mourns, what does she grieve over? What does she value? I think the possibilities are multitudinous in terms of specifics living in a fallen cosmos, a world where the table is never really set and prepared for the meal, but is always constantly being tipped over. There is, simply, a lot over which to mourn. Maybe that state of upendedness, of separation, death, decay and disintegration is the primary root of all authentic grief. Jesus himself embodies the attribute of those who mourn when he mourns death through the death of his friend Lazarus, whom he tells his disciples, is 'sleeping', which seems to be a euphemism that they do not apprehend. The sister of his friend, Martha, comes to him and meets him after he arrives, letting him know that he is too late, that Lazarus has died. Jesus rebukes her softly, and they have an interesting but revealing conversation, as Jesus weeps in the face of death, just as we are called to weep and mourn.

Jesus promises that those who mourn not only their own sins, but the sins of others, will be comforted. There is not only forgiveness for sins, but comfort given. The 19th Century Russian St. Seraphim of Sarov writes,

'"When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His inspiration, then the human soul overflows with joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches. This is that joy of which the Lord speaks in His Gospel: 'A woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. In the world you will be sorrowful, but when I see you again, your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you' (Jn. 16:21-22). Yet however comforting may be this joy which you now feel in your heart, it is nothing in comparison with that joy of which the Lord Himself by the mouth of His Apostle spoke: 'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for them that love Him' (I Cor. 2:9). Foretastes of that joy are given to us now, and if they fill our souls with such sweetness, well-being and happiness, what shall we say of that joy which has been prepared in heaven for those who weep here on earth?"

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. The person who is poor in spirit mourns over her own sins, the sins of others, and even the fallen condition of the cosmos. In other words, we grieve over the condition of death, the reality of death and decay, and our tears themselves work to cleanse us, to wash us, and to bring us relief. Moreover, Jesus Christ, who has overcome death through His incarnation and His cross, brings us comfort, consolation and joy now, and will bring us laughter in the kingdom of God.

EDIT: A more in-depth version of this article is available via my podcast, Seeking Peace, at Ancient Faith Radio