A Grief Observed by a Catholic ~ Part 2
As we mourn the recent death of both my mother, followed closely by my sister, it’s to be expected that the thoughts of those of us “left behind” turn towards those who have just crossed that awe-inspiring threshold into the next life. The first thing we experience is a strong urge to pray for them – and it seems at such times that prayer becomes a lot easier than it tends to be at other times. We are so consumed in the confronting reality of the death of a close relative that it is hard to think of much else other than praying for them. Holy Mother Church provides us the ideal formulae; so there isn’t much call for originality. Sincerely heartfelt repetition seems to be key.
Thoughts along the lines of trying to “put yourself in their shoes” naturally follow. The Saints have much to say to guide us in the correct line of thought in this regard. For example, St. Ambrose wrote:
“When he [Simeon] has seen Christ, he asks to be allowed to depart in peace, in order to go from chains to liberty. For the soul receives liberty when it is separated from the companionship of the body, and goes forth from the darkness that covers it in this world. ...To the righteous, death is the harbour of peace. Fools fear death as the worst evil; the wise desire it as the rest after labour and the end of evils.” ~ From On the Advantages of death quoted in the book, Comfort for the Faint-hearted by Ludovicus Blosius, O.S.B.
Why then do we weep upon a loved one’s passing into eternity if it had all the signs of being a holy and well provided for death? Are we justified in doing so when such a seemingly good and desirable thing has come into another’s possession? Let Holy Scripture speak for itself:
“When Mary therefore was come where Jesus was, seeing him, she fell down at his feet, and saith to him: Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. Jesus, therefore, when he saw her weeping, and the Jews that were come with her, weeping, groaned in the spirit, and troubled himself, And said: Where have you laid him? They say to him: Lord, come and see. And Jesus wept. The Jews therefore said: Behold how he loved him.” ~ St John, 11, 32-26
Our Lord Himself wept at the death of a loved one - and this was understandably taken as a sign of how He loved His friend. What about our tears, then, when a greatly cherished and much loved one dies? Is such weeping also virtuous or an expression of self-pity? It is probably a bit of both. Yet, if ever the sorrow at the loss of someone is so great that it feels like it’s rending your heart, and if ever the struggle rages to stifle the tears from flowing, this poignant and beautiful extract from the eulogy that St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote for his brother, will surely comfort your burdened spirit. The poetic effusion from this great Saint, steeped in holy pathos, will no doubt deeply move even the most stony heart:
Copied from The Family that Overtook Christ by M. Raymond O.C.S.O. ~
“How long shall I dissemble? How long shall I conceal within my breast the fire that consumes my broken heart? …What have I to do with the Canticle of love when I am submerged in an ocean of grief? ...I have done violence to my feelings until now; I have striven to conceal my sorrow lest it might seem that faith had succumbed to natural affection. Therefore, whilst all others wept, I alone was tearless. With tearless eyes I followed the cruel bier; with tearless eyes I stood at the grave until the last sad rite was accomplished. With my own lips I pronounced the usual prayers over the corpse. With my own hands I sprinkled the clay over the body of my beloved Gerard so soon to turn to clay. They who watched me were weeping and wondering why I did not weep…I tried to resist my sorrow with all the force I could gather from faith…but, my brethren, I have to acknowledge myself vanquished. Now I must give vent to my intense pain…
You know, O my children, how reasonable is my sorrow, how worthy of tears is the loss I have sustained; for you know how faithful a friend has been taken from my side…He was my brother by blood, but much more by religious profession. Oh, pity my lot, you to whom all this is unknown! I was weak in body, and he supported me. I was cowardly and he encouraged me. I was slothful and negligent, and he spurred me on. I was forgetful and improvident, and he acted as my monitor. Oh, whither have you been taken from me? Why have you been torn from my arms? We have loved each other in life, why then should we be parted in death? Oh, most cruel divorce, which only death could have the power to cause!...Or, so united, why so parted? O most mournful lot! But it is my plight that is pitiable, not his. For you, dear brother of mine, if separated from some dear ones, are now united to others still more dear; but what consolation is mine who has lost you, my only comfort?...
Oh! Who will grant me soon to die and follow you? To die instead of you, I should not ask; for that would be to wrong you by delaying your entrance into glory. But to survive you – what is it but labor and pain. So long as I live I shall live in bitterness, I shall live in sadness.
Gush forth now, my tears, for he is gone who by his presence prevented your flowing by excluding the cause. Open, ye fountains of my unhappy head, and pour yourselves out in rivers of water, if perchance you may thus suffice to wash away the soil of my sins, whereby I have called down upon me the wrath of heaven…Wherefore, be indulgent to me all ye that are holy… I grieve and lament Gerard. The cause of my tears is Gerard. My soul cleaved to his. We two were made one less by the ties of flesh and blood than by the sameness of sentiments, conformity of minds and harmony of wills. And shall anyone forbid me to lament his loss?
My very vitals have been torn out and shall it be said to me: ‘Do not feel,’ But I do feel. Oh yes! I feel. Because my strength is not the strength of stones, nor is my flesh brass. I most assuredly feel, and am in pain and my sorrow is continually before me…I have confessed my sorrow and have not denied it. You may call it carnal. I do not deny it is human any more than I deny that I am a man…I am not insensible to pain; and the thought of death coming to me or mine makes me shudder with horror. And Gerard was mine, surely mine…
I grieve for you, my best-beloved Gerard, not as if your lot was pitiable, but because you are with me no more…Would to God that I were certain that you were not lost to me forever, but only gone on before! Would to God that I had assurance that, even though late, yet at length I should follow you whither you have gone!
Let no man tell me that I should not allow myself to be overcome by natural grief. For the kind-hearted Samuel was allowed to indulge his sorrow over the reprobate King Saul, and the pious David over the treacherous Absalom…and behold a greater than Absalom is here! The Saviour Himself, looking on Jerusalem, forseeing its future fate, wept over it. And shall I not be suffered to feel my own desolation which is not future, but actually present? Must I remain insensible to my fresh and grievous wound? Surely I may weep from pain since Jesus wept from compassion. For at the grave of Lazarus He certainly did not reprove the mourners, but, on the contrary, united His own tears with theirs. 'And Jesus wept,’ writes the Evangelist. Those tears of His most assuredly betrayed no lack of confidence, but only testified to the reality of His human nature; for He immediately called the dead man back to life…So neither is my weeping a sign of weak faith, but only of the weakness of my condition. From the fact that I cry out with pain on being smitten, don’t suppose that I blame Him who smites. No! I only appeal to His compassion and endeavor to soften His severity. Hence, though my words are full of grief, they are free from the slightest taint of complaint. ‘Thou art just, O Lord, and Thy judgment right.’ Gerard Thou gavest’ Gerard Thou hast taken away; and if we lament his removal, we do not forget that he was only a loan…But now my tears force me to finish.”