Abba Poemen said also: “Grief is twofold: it works good, and it keeps out evil.”
Sayings like this (and there are many) are not easy to understand at first. The desert fathers and others talk about joy, and I have highlighted this in the past. So why grief? Why compunction? Why praise the virtues of a tearful life? There are many reasons, but I will look at just a few with reference to this saying of Abba Poemen here.
First of all, what sort of grief are we talking about here? St. Paul recommends “godly sorrow” that “produces repentance to salvation” in contrast to sorrowing without hope. Thus, we ought not to think of the compunction of the fathers as a despairing grief; they would not recommend that. It is a hopeful grief.
In addition, however, it is still grief. Grief about what? And why?
To me, one way of looking at it is as realistic grief. This is, in part, due to the fathers’ insistence that one ought always to remember the day of one’s death. This is not out morbidity but realism. We are all mortal, and it is nonsense to live as if we will never die, as many of us often do. In fact, we often let the fear of death rule our actions, setting us spiraling down the way of death.
Better to go to the house of mourning
Than to go to the house of feasting,
For that is the end of all men;
And the living will take it to heart.
A realistic apprehension of one’s mortality and the mortality of all living things evokes grief as a fully reasonable and fitting response. Their tears are evidence not of pathos, but rationality. And this, indeed, is a good thing.
Second, they grieve over the reality of sin. As someone who combs through the news on a daily basis as part of my job, I can say that sin is not a matter of superstition, but a clear, cold, empirical fact. And I can testify to such within myself most of all.
Thus, again, grief is a reasonable response, way of life even. The world is not the way it is supposed to be, and I am acutely aware of my own failings, since of my own heart alone do I have an insider’s viewpoint. Embracing grief, again not without hope (which I am coming to), helps ground me in reality, and it is a skill I am still learning I will add. It takes intention and practice.
Third, in addition to “keep[ing] out evil,” grief works the good of hope. Grief is necessary for hope. One cannot be hopeful if one does not first see one’s own misery. Only having grasped the reality of my condition, grounded in the two realities that 1) I am a sinner and 2) I am mortal, do I have need for something to hope for. And how great is that need!
Having understood my need for hope, then the Gospel becomes for me what it claims to be: good news. I will not be a sinner forever, and though I die, yet I shall live. Jesus Christ has come to suffer and die and through death to rise again in victory. I say this unapologetically: it is essential to Christianity, and this is a blog about Christian spirituality. It is not a blog about Christian apologetics, and I hope it never becomes one.
For the Gospel offers a promise of hope: death has been defeated, and through communion with Jesus Christ one can overcome the fear of death, by which we are kept in bondage to sin and, I would add, unreality. It is the fear of death that drives people to live as if they were not mortal and had never sinned, surely the most dangerous way a person could live.
I, for one, prefer reality … and hope. Which reminds me that I need to keep working daily on cultivating the good of “godly sorrow.”