Monday, May 15, 2017

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn: The Spiritual Practice Of Sorrow

"Old Man in Sorrow" by Vincent Van Gogh

The longer I have begun to meditate on "Blessed are those who mourn," the more I began to see more deeply into the spiritual side of sorrow. That it is not only sacred and holy, but spiritually necessary.  As I am studying the Beatitudes more closely and how these challenging verses can change and become a part of my daily life, I have begun reading books about them. One that I'm currently reading is John Dear's The Beatitudes of Peace and, as I'm reflecting on how I can better incorporate "Blessed are those who mourn" as part of my spiritual practice (not an easy one to do, by the way), I read this from Dear's book:

This Beatitude invites us to make grief part of our spiritual
practice. Once a week, or perhaps even daily, we need to
take time to grieve. We make time to sit in silence with God
to grieve the death of thousands of sisters and brothers, mourn
the destruction of millions of creatures and creation itself, and
let the pain of our common loss break our hearts. We become
vulnerable, enter the pain of humanity and creation, and 
embrace it. In doing so, we grieve with God who grieves and
weeps. Only then will our heart be broken and the God of 
peace console us.

Since I already have a daily practice of sitting silently with God, this concept of using part of those times to grieve for others was one I knew I could include into these times. In doing so, I would cultivate compassion as I mourned for the poor and oppressed, for those in war-torn countries, for those who are dying senselessly from malnutrition or preventable diseases. This act of grieving for another is a way to form connection between myself and those I'm mourning for, something I have discovered in my grieving for Syria and its people. 

When I come in silence, I must ask myself, "Does the pain of others break my heart as it does God's?" 

Do I mourn the death of a Syrian mother as much as I did my own?  Do I mourn for the Syrian father who lost his twins in the chemical attack as if they were my own children?

Mourning in this fashion molds me into a more Christ-like follower as I am drawn into compassion for the suffering of others and not focusing on myself. It is heart-breaking to stop and consider that 470,000 of my brothers and sisters have died in Syria and created 6.1 million internationally displaced people. More than 117,000 have either been detained or disappeared. Or mourn the 7,600 people who have died in Yemen since March, 2015. The crisis there is so bad that 70% of the population is in dire need of aid. 

Do we mourn the fact that 6 to 8 million people die annually from not having clean drinking water? From the fact that 315,000 of those are children?

Or that every 10 seconds a child dies from hunger?

We should be mourning because both of these are preventable. 

Do we mourn the fact that 1,500 LGBT youth commit suicide each year? That 30% of gay youth attempt suicide by the age of 15? That they are 6 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals?

Do we mourn the racial injustice in this country? That African-Americans are killed by police 2.5 times more than whites. Unarmed African-American men are more likely by six-to-one to be shot by police over unarmed white men. If Dylann Roof had been an African-American teen who had shot a white church, he wouldn't be in prison, he'd be dead. 

Do we mourn the injustice of our criminal system that favors the rich over the poor? A criminal system that is racially biased? According to the NAACP, from the brief period of 1998 to 2008 the number incarcerated went drastically from 500,000 to 2.3 million people. We only have 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners. Of the 2.3 million, African-Americans constitute over half. If African-Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, the prison population would decline by over half. One in six African-American men are incarcerated ,as of 2001. That means that 1 in 3 black males born will be during his lifetime. Should we not mourn this? Should we not mourn that, despite the fact that whites use drugs 5 times more than African-Americans, African-Americans are sent to prison over 10 times more for drug offenses than whites? Should we not morn that the prison system is big business? That over $70 billion dollars a year is spent on corrections?  

Do we mourn the fact that so much of the wealth of this country was built on the backs and bloodshed of Native and African Americans? And for those who would dismiss this as being in the past, look at the effects this has had on the communities of both groups. 

Consider that suicide among Native American youth are double that of of the national rate. Native Americans also have the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse. This country has taken away their land, their culture, their identities and left them at an economic disadvantage. 28.3% of Native Americans are in poverty. That's the highest rate of any race in the United States. That means one in four Native Americans are in poverty. At Standing Rock, it's 43.2%. As I had begun meditating on "Blessed are those who mourn," one of the first things that came to my mind was the Trail of Tears. How does this verse relate to those whose ancestors were forced to take this tragic march? Has God comforted them? Would they say that God has? Do we mourn over their response because it is we who have failed them? Do we mourn that we proclaimed Christ all the while we were slaughtering them, raping them, taking away all that they had? I mourn in the hopes that, even now, that God will be close to them, close to those who are brokenhearted and crushed in spirit. 

Do we mourn for those who are sexually assaulted? Every 98 seconds someone is. The average in America is 321,500 victims (ages 12 and up) are raped or sexually assaulted each year. Ages 12-34 are the ages most likely to be. Do we mourn for the victims or blame them? Does our justice system? Do we mourn for the fact that 33% of women who were raped consider suicide? Transgender students are more likely to be victims of sexual assault. Do we mourn for them or dismiss this out of homophobia? Do we mourn that 11.2% of students experience rape or sexual assault each year? Worldwide, 1 in every 3 women have been beaten, abused or coerced into sex. 1/3 of American women said they have been physically or sexually abused by their spouse or boyfriend. 1 in 5 high school girls say they have been either physically or sexually abused by someone they were dating. Do we mourn for them or blame them? Do we mourn or do we ask, "What was the girl wearing?" or "What was she drinking?" 

Do we mourn for those caught in human and sexual trafficking? There are 20-30 million people caught in slavery today. That's more than in all of human history. 600,00 to 800,000 people are trafficked across borders each year. 80% are female. Half are children. 80% of those are for sex, Only 19% for labor. 13 million children are caught in human trafficking. Should these numbers not cause us to mourn? Should we not weep and cry out before God? 

Do we mourn that too many in our country care more about gun rights than human rights? That 300,000 people are killed by firearms in the U.S. each year? That 30 people are shot and murdered each day? In terms of gun homicides worldwide, the statistics are glaring:
- Japan has less than 50
- Germany, Italy and France have less than 150
- Canada has less than 200
But the United States has over 10,000
Is that not a reason to mourn? 

How do we react when we see statistics like all of these? 





How would Christ react to them?

Do we mourn because those numbers are more than mere statistics but are human lives that have died needlessly. That each one reveals a part of society, a part of our world, that may or may not be something we're aware of. But, as followers of Christ, we should be. 

Do we mourn because God mourns over each and every one of them?

I am beginning to take time to mourn. To lament in prayer through tears and crying out. Weeping for justice. 

My favorite prophet, Jeremiah, was known as the weeping prophet. He understood the holiness of lament, of weeping, of mourning. He also grasped the spiritual principle that those who mourn will be comforted or, as he wrote about how God "will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow." 

In the Orthodox church they have a wonderful phrase called "bright sadness." This comes from the Greek word charmolyp√™, which means "bitter joy" or "joyful mourning." It's a term, like the Beatitudes themselves, that describes a paradoxical state, in this case a mingling of joy and grief.  The poet Naomi Shihab Nye understood this when she wrote, "Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing." 


Because we cannot disconnect one from the other. 

This "bright sadness" allows us to see the suffering of others and to better understand the connectedness we have to them, that we are, all of us, deeply interconnected. It means the suffering of another becomes our suffering.  "Blessed are those who mourn" means we bear witness to the suffering of others and reach out in mercy (Blessed are the merciful). To mourn for their suffering is to bear their burdens. We hold their sadness within our the context of God's brightness.  That from the darkness comes the light. That Good Friday leads to Easter. Death to resurrection. Mourning to joy.

By undergoing the spiritual practice of mourning for other's suffering, we no longer try to keep sorrow from ourselves, but welcome it as a way to draw closer to both God and those we are mourning for. 

If we do so, how can we not be transformed? 

How would it not transform how we see and interact with others?

As I was grocery shopping last week, there was an older woman in front of me in the line. She was very irritable and nothing was making her happy. This woman was angry that they were out-of-stock on an item that was on sale. While this lady fussed and complained, the young woman behind the register was patient and kind as she listened to this woman's tirade. She was apologetic and generously gentle with someone who did not deserve this response. The clerk was being more than polite because it was her job, but somehow she managed to get this older woman to open up and she revealed to the clerk, "I'm sorry. I know I'm being difficult. I always am this time of year. You see, this is the anniversary of my daughter's death. It's always very, very hard for me." The young woman behind the register then revealed, "I've lost a child, too." I watched as these two women shared not only their pain, but tears. They ended up hugging by the end of the transaction. But what amazed me was how the clerk could have simply just done her job, unconcerned and merely to get this difficult customer out of there, but she took the time and from that came healing. It was beautiful and I had to wipe tears from my own eyes. That was how we, as the body of Christ, should be to all we come across daily. 

When we open our hearts to the grief and sorrows of another, we become more tender-hearted (just as that grocery clerk was). When we mourn, we move from ego to empathy. 

Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is "a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance." Too many Churches only want the laughing and the dancing, but they are missing out on the even deeper spiritual experience of mourning because only by mourning will we be comforted by the God who mourns with us. When we mourn for others, we find ourselves becoming both more deeply involved in life and yet less attached to it, as we become more attached to the things of God (especially since we are focusing on others and not ourselves). 

One of my favorite English novelists, George Eliot, once wrote, "Deep unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state." I believe this is true. When we enter the "deep unspeakable suffering" of others we find ourselves transformed into more Christ-like people who are more compassionate, more loving, more kind, more concerned about others than ourselves. Think of how that would change the world if we began to live like that?

To mourn is to let go of arrogance, ego, and pride. To mourn is to no longer claiming responsibility, It is identifying ourselves before God with those who are suffering. When we mourn for others, we no longer see them as "other" or as an abstraction or as statistics. When we mourn for others, we more closely identify ourselves with them. It becomes no longer about assigning blame or criticizing them. It goes from asking, "Why are they suffering?"  to, more importantly, asking, "What can I do to alleviate that suffering?" When we more closely identify ourselves with them, we will then be more open to advocating and working on their behalf, to seek justice for them, to offer them comfort, and we become the compassion of Christ to others. 

Thomas Merton, in his wisdom, understood the importance of mourning. "The truth that many people never understand until it is too late," he said, "is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to you fear of being hurt." Yet when we mourn for the suffering we see in the world around us, the less we fear being hurt because we understand, deep down, that God will not abandon us, but will, in fact, be there with us to comfort us. This is the promise of Matthew 5:4. This is the spiritual reality of the kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. That is why I have begun the spiritual practice of mourning.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

"Does Your Heart Break" by The Brilliance

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