The second beatitude says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
I remember it like yesterday. The insistent kitchen phone was ringing on the other side of the wall as I woke. I had gone to bed exhausted with sorrow and fear the night before, having returned from the hospital where my Dad lay, snoring loudly in the depths of a coma. Just as my eyes opened, I heard my Mom pick up the phone and say, “Yes?” I held my breath and could hear the stroke of my pulse in my ears. A beat, then I heard my Mom moan, “Ohhhhhhhhh!”–as though all the sadness of the earth were in it. My heart pounded and I jumped out of bed, numbly groping for the door. The worst thing in the world had finally come. I rushed to my Mom and held her for a minute, then went down the hall to tell my older brother that Dad was dead. Trembling, I went in my old bedroom, fell to my knees and bawled, asking God to take Dad’s soul and grant him peace. I still feel the grief as I write about it.
When I tell people this story, they will often tear up even though they know neither me nor my Dad–and that tells us something hugely important about what a truly “personal” experience is.
Our culture, intensely individualistic as it is, tends to identify personal experience with esoteric experience. When we say, for instance, that religious belief is personal, we mean that it is supposed to be private and not public. Now, to be sure, there is something properly private about the intensely personal experience of mourning. We aren’t supposed to intrude on somebody’s grief with platitudes and “buck up” speeches. But it is emphatically not true that mourning is therefore something esoteric, only knowable to a select few individuals, and not commonly shared. On the contrary, mourning is universal and common–as are all our deepest experiences. For the things which are most universal are also the things that are the most personal. Everybody falls in love. Everybody has felt fear. Everybody has known delight. Everybody wonders what the point of it all is.
And everybody mourns. We may believe that when we mourn we are utterly alone. But the truth is that when we mourn we join ranks with all the weeping children of Adam and Eve and feel in our marrow what the pagans called “the tears of things”.
We experience this not only mourning for the death of loved ones, but for the loss of things, places, times, abilities, hopes, dreams, and many of the other goods of this passing world. Mourning stalks us. We know that sooner or later our time will come and we hope to ward it off. So we chase death and loss away as soon as possible and we often act as though we have a sort of superstitious fear that it is “catching”. So we avoid the grieving, lest we get some of it on us via some unseemly display of their shouts or tears or begging for the past to return. But for all that, mourning comes to us anyway–because God wills that we be blessed.
The prophet Isaiah spoke to the Jewish people in the midst of their great national trauma, the Babylonian Captivity:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2).
This prophecy looked both backward and forward, as was the custom of the prophets. Looking backward, it likened the New Exodus from Babylon to the Old Exodus from Egypt. Looking forward, it prophetically foreshadowed the final Exodus God would accomplish when Christ would lead his people through death to life.
All true words of comfort do the same to some degree or other. We are called, however feebly to look back on goodness and forward in hope. God builds on this pattern by reminds us of what he has done for his people and urges us to attend to the good that he will yet do. False comfort, in contrast, urges us to numb or distract ourselves with lies or booze or some other drug.
Not all mourning is private. A whole world can feel it, as we did, for instance, after September 11 or during the assassinations of the 60s. But public or private, it can be immensely fruitful, spiritually speaking. The world abounds with examples of those who have been deeply blessed by it. 9/11 is, again, instructive: the immense outpouring of courage, nobility, love and prayer that issued from the wounds torn open in the side of our nation shows what hearts disposed to the Holy Spirit can discover of the riches in mourning. The blood that poured out of our hearts that day was an intimate sharing in the blood that poured from the wounded heart of Christ and many knew both his anguish and his consolation.
On the other hand, just as there can be false comfort, so there can be false fruits from mourning: it can be stillborn as bitterness, despair, rage, vengefulness and even blasphemy can proceed from mourning too.
Whatever our response to mourning, the point of the beatitude is that a blessing remains on those who mourn because the blessing is due to the love of Christ, not the goodness of man. For God’s tenderness is vastly greater than we can understand or imagine. The tears that Christ shed on the cross put out the fires of hell for us, if we receive them. The suffering that we have to endure in Christ is not “vengeance” but a sharing in his own suffering. And even when chastisement comes to us for our real sins, it is ordered, always and forever, toward our final bliss and blessing, not toward our destruction. But before, behind, and above it all is that tenderness, a desire for our true comfort (not the TV or alcohol-numbed counterfeit the world sells us) that is the deepest, sweetest comfort there is. It is a comfort that made Paul actually rejoice in his sufferings. It is a comfort so intensely beautiful that sane men have walked gladly straight to their deaths rather than lose it. To taste it is to lose the desire of the cheap imitations the world routinely offers. Today, if you are mourning, may you know the comfort God gives in Christ and drink of it deeply.
(For more on the Beatitudes, go here to order Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes and a Joyful Life.)