When I undertook this extended time of studying, meditating on, and attempting to live out the Beatitudes, what I am discovering is that it allows me to spend more time on a single verse of scripture instead of merely trying to rush through a book. Instead, by focusing on each verse for however long the Spirit leads me to, I begin to delve more deeply into what exactly that verse means in terms of text and context, as well as application and asking myself how I can best live out what Christ taught through the Sermon on the Mount.
Often when I read scriptures it is not seeking answers so much as listening for questions. Those questions that stir up in me are the ones that drive me deeper, to investigate further and to probe what a particular passage or verse means. Certainly this is turning out to be the case for Matthew 5:4, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." In the past, like many, I used to pass over verses like this one that deal with a subject I often like to forget and not spend a lot of time pondering: mourning. I can relate to Emily Dickinson's writing:
The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering . . .
What's she's getting at here, is our desire to avoid pain, suffering, and sorrow. We attempt to either avoid them or to "deaden the pain" in whatever form we can (be it alcohol, drugs, shopping, entertainment, etcetera). Certainly it caused me to reflect on how, after 9/11, President George W. Bush asked the country, not to mourn, but to go shopping in response to the attacks. How very American and very contrary this is to what Christ has called us to. He does not say, "Blessed are those who shop, for they shall be comforted." No, comforted is not the same as comfortable. Christ also understood that, when we don't properly mourn, we don't properly heal.
The word for mourn in Hebrew is abal and means to grieve or lament. But there is another word in Hebrew for mourn. qadar, that also means to darken or become dark. To enter mourning is, in its way, entering darkness. It can be grieving over a death of a person or a personal hope or dream. Christ is not referring to mourning over personal sin in this Beatitude, but a lament over a loss in one's life that causes sorrow and grief. And when Christ speaks of mourning, he is using the present active participle. This is about someone who is in the process of mourning.
Unlike our current culture, the Jewish culture that Jesus lived in, understood the importance of mourning. For them, mourning could involve:
- rending of clothes
- dressing in sackcloth
- covering oneself in ashes
- shaving one's head and beard
Mourning could last anywhere from 7 to 30 days. There were people who were actually employed to mourn (How would you like that job? And it's not a thing of the past, but continues to be a growing industry in the Western world).
During the time of mourning, a special meal of condolence was prepared for after the burial ceremony. Mourners remained in the home of the friend or family throughout the seven days. Prayers were offered. The Torah was read. Memorial candles were lit.
Just think of how much that had to impact those who had lost someone to have their friends and family stop their own lives to be with them to mourn? All of them were showing that, in some way, the world was changed, it was now different for all of them, that they, too, felt the loss. As well as loved those who were in mourning.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
In mourning, we empty ourselves of ourselves in grief and, it's only when emptied, that God can not only comfort us, but fill us with His Spirit. There is a saying that rightly goes, "He who mourns, mends. Mourning is active and requires time. Mourning is a way of expressing our loss, our despair, our vulnerability, our fear and our disorientation at what has just happened. It is a way of wrestling with and processing what has just happened (whether it be the death of a loved one, loss of a job, the end of a marriage). Mourning is a part of spiritual growth. It is going through what psychologists call the five stages of grief and moving from denial to acceptance. If we do not mourn, we cannot properly and, in a healthy manner, accomplish this. Without mourning, we may find ourselves trapped within our anger and our hurts. Our wounds do not heal but only grow deeper. Our hearts may harden, especially towards God whom we may blame for the loss.
Yet it's when we allow ourselves to mourn, that we allow others to truly be a part of our lives: not just the happy, joyous occasions, but in the midst of our pain, which most often deepens our friendships with those who are willing to be there and hold our hurt. It also allows us, as followers of Christ, to be Christ-like in going to those who are in desperate need of compassion and comforting. It allows us to hold that hurt and to be present for their grief. We can cry as they cry. We can, often say nothing, but simply be present, to hold their hand and just listen. This means we are not to be Job's companions who offer up their answers, but to be gentle and tender-hearted to someone who's wounded and mourning a loss. To be with the broken while they are broken. This is true intimacy. Yet none of this can happen if we do not mourn and be with those who do.
I truly believe that the comfort God will give us during our mourning most often comes through those who are there for us. Who offer us reminders that we are not alone, that we are thought of and loved, that we are being prayed for and remembered while we are grieving.
I love how Henri Nouwen writes about this in his book Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life:
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
This is what Christ is calling us to in this Beatitude. This is what the Christian life is all about. This is how we can mourn and yet say, "It is well."