Abba Poemen said also: “Grief is twofold: it works good, and it keeps out evil.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 3.12
There are many ways in which Abba Poemen could be wrong. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and presume that he is aware of all those. When is Abba Poemen right? When is grief not only not bad, but a double blessing?
I’ve referenced the work of Nassim Taleb here before. Taleb has developed a concept called antifragility. While something that is fragile is shattered by unexpected shocks, and something robust is unaffected, the antifragile actually benefits. In his book of the same name, he talks about the concept across all areas of life—finance, medicine, biology, and so on—in his characteristically maverick way, which though entertaining would be a distraction to elaborate on here.
So how is that grief—which, on the face of it, is obviously bad—can be a double blessing? How can we become antifragile towards grief?
The first answer, especially considering the context—a collection of stories and sayings of religious ascetics—is that what Abba Poemen means by grief is grief for one’s sins, i.e. contrition or compunction. As such, it is a part of repentance. Though one may grieve over the realization of one’s guilt, in that very grief one moves away from the sin itself, turning away from shame and guilt toward goodness, forgiveness, grace, and God himself.
Another, more technical nuance might be to rehearse ancient Christian psychology. In general, they agreed with the Stoics that passions were not mere, involuntary, non-cognitive feelings but the result of an intricate psychological process. Actually, for ancient Christians it was more intricate than for the Stoics; they developed the concept further. The basic distinction to keep in mind, then, is that grief is not synonymous with the feeling of sadness but more of a chosen (or, at least, once-chosen) emotional habit.
I am reminded of a priceless quote from St. John Climacus:
When we die, we will not be criticized for having failed to work miracles. We will not be accused of having failed to be theologians or contemplatives. But we will certainly have some explanation to offer to God for not having mourned unceasingly.
So there is a certain form of grief that is as universal as, and appropriate to, our mortality. And it outweighs any fame that comes from working wonders, constructing intellectual systems, or even meditative ecstasy—though none of those things are therefore bad. This grief, to Climacus, is simply better.
Actually, that whole step of the ladder (#7) is worth reading and rereading. Another gem:
Mourning which is according to God is a melancholy of the soul, a disposition of an anguished heart that passionately seeks what it thirsts for, and when it fails to attain it, pursues it diligently and follows behind it lamenting bitterly.
There is something of a burning, wild desire at the heart of true, pious grief.
One last quote:
As I ponder the true nature of compunction, I find myself amazed by the way in which inward joy and gladness mingle with what we call mourning and grief, like honey in a comb. There must be a lesson here, and it surely is that compunction is properly a gift from God, so that there is a real pleasure in the soul, since God secretly brings consolation to those who in their heart of hearts are repentant.
Within this grief lies a hidden treasure, “joy and gladness,” “real pleasure,” and “consolation”—Not the fleeting pleasures of this life, but that which seems to come as an eternal kiss, the appearance to the heart of a peace beyond imagination or understanding. Fr. Schmemann, I believe, called it a “bright sadness,” associating it with the penitential posture of Great Lent.
While this, in some sense, is still the same as our first explanation (repentance), we’ve moved much further … or deeper.
What is this grief, then? Is it strange to want grief?
As ethnically Scots—so I’ve been told—I have periodic bouts of melancholy. Actually, I’ve tried to explain it to others before as something else—it’s a sort of serious introspection, not necessarily sadness. It’s when I just want to be alone and read or write and listen to the same songs, which like old friends bring me immediately back to a state of greater authenticity, vulnerability even.
The ascetic way of life shows me that this natural quirk has a higher calling. And, of course, it isn’t just a Scottish thing. Everyone experiences grief. That may, in fact, be something of what Climacus is getting at: “we will certainly have some explanation to offer to God for not having mourned unceasingly.” While grief for our own state is necessary enough, when we look beyond ourselves, we see a great need for empathy, true compassion—not, again, mere sentiment, not a passion that pushes us around, but a powerful force we might wield for good.
The Stoics, actually, did not have a place for a good form of grief. This is one of many ways in which early Christians (and Jews, for that matter) improved upon their psychology. For the Stoics, grief was a judgment that something was a present evil. But how can experiencing a present evil ever be a good? Caution, a correct judgment of a future evil, was good precisely because it helped you avoid that evil in the present. But grief? If you have grief, you’ve already gone wrong.
Not so to ancient Christians. “Grief is twofold: it works good, and it keeps out evil,” says Abba Poemen. It drives out present evil by facing it for what it is. It works good by turning our hearts to the only Source of true, transcendent joy. Grief over sin does this obviously, but grief over tragedy can do it too. It doesn’t erase the evil, but grief keeps us from running from reality; it keeps us from trying to hold back the wind. One can get trapped in grief, if that grief does not also have hope. But if it does not slip into despair, then such grief is a welcome friend.
How do we attain such spiritual antifragility? One step at a time.
“Those making some progress in blessed mourning,” writes Climacus,
Are usually temperate and untalkative. Those who have succeeded in making real progress do not become angry and do not bear grudges. As for the perfect-these are humble, they long for dishonor, they look out for involuntary sufferings, they do not condemn sinners and they are inordinately compassionate. The first kind are acceptable, the second praiseworthy, but blessed surely are those who hunger for suffering and thirst for dishonor, for they will be filled to abundance with the food that cannot satiate them.
Or better, as Christ himself put it, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
Perhaps we miss the wisdom in this saying because we fail to realize that we all, already, need to be comforted. The real world is too tragic to bear on our own. Such sanity is too weighty a burden for mere mortals like us. Can we ever have the courage to face it if there is no greater comfort to lift the burden?
Thankfully, like any other spiritual practice, this, too, can be tested. It needs no proof, offers no arguments. It can only say, “This is the way to walk. Many have travelled this path before. Many others travel it now. Join them yourself. Try it. Come and see what lies at the end of the road: the Comforter overflowing with abundant compassion for those who but allow themselves to receive him.”