“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:4).
The beatitudes in Matthew are difficult to talk about because they come off as being so straight-forward: we see the present and the future juxtaposed against each other: an unpleasant reality and an eschatological end. The text holds forth a kind of theodicy because it tells us our present suffering will be justified by the good to which we will attain as peoples’ fortunes are reversed. The beatitudes don’t come off as a moral imperative, but more like a truth of how things will one day be. Anyway, that’s what the commentaries tell me.
I have several problems with this.
When God declares something blessed, He isn’t just sitting there throwing words around like so much beautiful, empty filler. God is making that thing blessed, not just in some hypothetical future to assuage our worries with promises of a glorious apocalypse, but here and now. Blessed are those who mourn.
How can mourning be blessed? To lose someone or something, to feel that raw pain ripping at your heart, how is that good? 1
Blessings are complicated, shifting and moving and living things that don’t respect boundaries like good and bad; weaving in between them like water, blessings reshape reality by surrounding it with God’s love and slowly wearing away at the jagged edges. God’s blessing, like the sun, shines in places we would not conceive (Mt 5:43-45).
To mourn, to lose, is already a blessing because it means we have had and loved. To have loved so deeply, to have cherished…it is a blessing that loss does not take away. The spaces of our loss are filled with memories etched deep inside of us that sadness cannot dim, that the passage of time cannot undo, that healing does not take away. We pass through the grief holding on to what was; through coming to terms with loss our love is embedded within us.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. There is no comfort, not really, in the end times, because there is no suffering: every tear has been wiped away (Rev 21:1-4). With no sorrow, with no mourning, there can be no comfort. But God’s comfort isn’t always a warm fuzzy blanket enfolding us so we can drift off into some kind of blissful, forgetful sleep like someone who’s drunk from the Lethe. God’s comfort can be profoundly uncomfortable, profoundly painful. God is with you in the hard moments, and that is comfort, but God does not strip us of our humanity and all that entails. God does not destroy us, and what we are, for the sake of merely assuaging our hurt. We go through it together – I go through it with Him – and I am comforted because in the depths of myself where I do not dare to go I am not alone.
Allowing yourself to mourn strips you bare: you are raw in your grief, emotionally exposed, vulnerable, and real. You are not hiding behind a wall or a façade, concealing your love and your loss from yourself. Grief is an openness, to yourself and to God, a crack through which light gets in. We encounter God in the depths of our loss. As we are at our realest, and at our most vulnerable, our hearts can open fully to that love which we do not deserve, cannot earn, and will never lose. The beatitudes tell us about the blessings that come to those who are real, stripped down, raw and bare and honest. God is at work in our willingness to be fully human, to listen for Him, to love, and to experience suffering and loss: blessed are those who mourn.
The Gospel makes demands on us; it is alive and transforming us, so how could it not? There is an imperative in God’s blessing that cannot be ignored. We are called to mourn our losses, to not bury them or minimize them or trivialize our loves because it would be easier. Mourning is difficult because feeling loss is uncomfortable, and people find all sorts of ways to numb the pain rather than going through it – trusting that they can go through it – and finding true healing and peace. Mourning is difficult because it exposes us to truths about ourselves. Mourning is difficult because facing ourselves in those spaces, and facing God in those spaces, can be terrifying. Admitting the extent of loss can be difficult even when it would mean a deeper and more profound relationship with ourselves and with God.
I have mourned many people in my life without reserve. I have mourned things that happened to people I knew and came to love, even over brief periods. I have mourned for people who did not recover from mental illness as I watched it steal parts, and sometimes all, of their lives. But I am coming to realize there are losses in my own life I haven’t had the courage to mourn.
I haven’t mourned for living with an inexplicable sadness that sometimes swallows me whole and which I do not fully understand, though it has certainly been a loss.
I haven’t mourned for the person I was, though I will never be the same, and in some ways I think that’s a good thing.
I have tried to use my losses to help other people, to be something to someone, but I haven’t grieved them.
I have never really mourned the times I was raped. Part of it is trying not to think about the emotional impact it has and has had on me, to brush it aside as things gone, to bury it deeply; but I have allowed it to surround me like water, wearing away at the edges and taking the place of God’s comfort, where God would be if I was willing to admit the painful spaces of loss and regret. Part of it is because I blame myself for not being more careful and more concerned with protecting what God had given me to cherish, and I am ashamed. Because I don’t love myself or have compassion for myself in those ways, I don’t trust God to love me either, and I haven’t asked – really asked – for His forgiveness.
Words are difficult. I rarely use the word rape in writing, and almost never say it aloud: it is raw, and open, and ugly, and I am afraid.
I can’t have truly forgiven my rapists if I haven’t allowed my loss to be a part of myself, and I want to forgive them.
Jesus speaks the beatitudes as the Anointed One prophesied in Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound [and] to comfort all who mourn; [Instead] of your shame you shall have a double portion, instead of dishonor you shall rejoice in your lot; therefore in your land you shall possess a double portion; yours shall be everlasting joy” (Isa 61:1-2, 7).
Blessed are those who mourn.
God makes promises not for the future but to transform us through the power of His blessing; God utters blessings that do not erase what has gone before but that hold us by His side as we open ourselves to mourning and loss, together.
1 The DSM-V, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, appears to have removed grief as an exclusionary criteria from Major Depressive Episode. This means that people who are mourning a recent loss can be diagnosed with a mental illness on the basis of that grief. I have several problems with this.↩