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Joy-Making Mourning

Last Sunday evening the young adults had a good conversation on a tough topic: spiritual mourning. The impetus for this conversation was a book that we are reading called Thirty Steps to Heaven which is an introduction to The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Now there is no getting around the fact that attempting to see mourning as any sort of virtue is difficult in our culture. Ours is a world thoroughly saturated with notions of self-improvement, personal growth, and the constant mantra that we should be “Happy! Happy! Happy!” Pop psychology, the media, and even much of our religion (or, as people prefer it now, “spirituality”) have conspired to create a culture that has rightly and repeatedly been termed a “cult of happiness”. The presupposition is that if you are not happy, not fulfilled, then something is definitely wrong with you.

Lately, numerous books and articles have begun to point out some of the burdens, even from a secular vantage point, that this imperative of happiness is laying upon us. The idea that we and our children and our marriages and our relationships should be stress-free and happy most all of the time is making us miserable.

You see, embedded deep within the cult of happiness is a poisonous assumption that motivates and guides the whole enterprise: the belief, the absolute conviction, and the near dogma that individuals and relationships should here and now be fulfilled, or better yet, maximized. If we or the persons in our lives (or our companies, our churches, etc) are not reaching our potential at this moment then something is wrong with us. And we must fix it!

But what does any of this have to do with the Orthodox ascetical teaching on mourning? St John in his Ladder of Divine Ascent places mourning as one of the fundamental virtues necessary for the Christian life along with obedience, repentance and the remembrance of death. This means that the connection between these virtues is essential. In other words, apart from obedience, repentance and the remembrance of death, mourning would not be the “godly sorrow” that St Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 7:10 but rather what he calls “the sorrow of this world” which produces death.

It is instructive as we consider spiritual mourning to note that as we prepare for the Great Fast the Church adds to its usual Sunday hymns at Matins the singing of Psalm 136:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion…. For there, they that had taken us captive…asked us for a hymn, saying: Sing us one of the songs of Sion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

This psalm is a lament of the exiles taken away from Mount Zion to Babylon. And the fact that we sing it on the Sundays leading up to Great Lent makes clear it’s meaning for us: we are exiles from our true homeland. Even though we have been baptized into Christ and have begun already to partake of the blessedness of the life to come, we have not yet fully entered into that life. On the one hand this is obviously true because we are still in this world which is laboring with birth pangs awaiting its deliverance (Rom 8.22). On the other hand - and if we are honest - our exile is not simply due to our terrestrial location or even the fact that we are still in the flesh, but more significantly to our sin and the fact that even now we do not live that life and blessedness to which we have been called. It is this, first and foremost, that causes us to mourn.

But we would be terribly remiss, at this point, if we did not point out something important in St John’s chapter on mourning. The title of his chapter is not simply “On Mourning”. Perhaps enigmatically, he modifies “mourning” with the single Greek word “χαροποιού” which translates simply as “joy-making”. And this adjective changes everything! For the mourning that he advocates as essential to spiritual life is not a hopeless and dour dirge, but a hope-filled and longing lament for the Father’s house. And this sort of lament, coupled with repentance, is truly and wonderfully joy-making, for it knows that in Christ the gates of Paradise which were once closed to us have been opened and the way has been made for us to enter in singing! Thus we also sing on Sundays leading up to Great Lent:

Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.

There is, then, a remarkable irony in all of this. Our culture, enamored with the cult of happiness, goes whistling through the graveyard of this world, in denial of the reality of death, trying desperately to purchase anything that will procure happiness here and now. Christians, on the other hand, knowing they are exiles, sing often in this world a hymn of lamentation. But they do so as those who have already in their hearts and often on their lips the Paschal hymn of resurrection: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

With love in Christ, Fr John

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