Blessed are They that Mourn for They Shall Be Comforted, by Father Basil William Maturin

Feast of All SoulsThe first Beatitude lays down the Law that is to govern man in his relation to all the things and circumstances of life outside of himself. The second, the Law of interior self-discipline, which, beginning with the effort to keep himself free and unfettered, ends in endowing him with that interior calm and self-control, that power of holding himself well in hand, which are the hidden springs of meekness.

The third Beatitude deals with sorrow and suffering. A religion that has nothing to say about these could scarcely be the religion for the human race, which is marked and scarred and seamed by their presence. Over its history hangs the dark shadow of sorrow, and suffering has ever dogged its steps, seizing now upon one, now another, and torturing them in its embrace. They are shrouded in mystery; none know whence they come or whither they go, and when they come they stir the mind with doubts and questionings that will not be silenced. To each new victim, as they approach, though their presence is ever seen and felt all around, they come as something new, something bewildering. It is one thing to see others suffer, but it is a very different thing to suffer oneself. The arguments and sympathy which we give to others in the hour of trial seem poor and inadequate in our own case, The clearness of vision with which we seemed to understand their meaning and to trace their cause, becomes blurred and obscured when we are ourselves their victims. Their presence, which tradition traces to the dawn of the race, comes to each new sufferer as the presence of a stranger, bewildering, harrowing, and moving his nature to its depths, disclosing every weakness or bringing to light unknown virtues, testing it, probing it, stirring up its dregs. No man really knows himself till he has passed beneath the lash. It is the supreme revelation of character. It is like the Word of God, spoken of in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “living, and effectual, and more piercing than any two-edged sword, and reaching unto the division of the soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”. It is like the fan upon the threshing floor separating the chaff from the wheat. It is the fire that tries every man’s work of what sort it is. It tests the foundations of character, whether they be wood, hay, stubble, or gold, silver, precious stones. Under the test of pain or sorrow, the edifice of many an apparently strong character has fallen into ruins, and many who have passed amongst men as weak, have come forth strong and brave.

A religion therefore of breezy sunshine which ignores the presence of sorrow and suffering, or explains them away, or treats them as unrealities, can have little lasting hold upon suffering humanity. It must have something to tell us about these mysteries which have so vast and deep an influence upon our nature for good or evil.

Now there are two ways in which religion may deal with these mysteries.

1. It may profess to give an explanation of them that will be entirely satisfactory to the intellect and the moral sense, Many men demand passionately the reason of all the misery around them. It is, they feel, the mystery, the unreasonableness, the injustice or cruelty of it that makes it so intolerable. And no doubt this is partly true. We feel very differently towards a difficulty that is merely intellectual from one that is moral. We can abide patiently the issue while we set ourselves to work out some scientific or intellectual problem. We know in fact that impatience will cloud the mind. There is perhaps no characteristic of the great thinkers of the world that calls for admiration so much as the serenity and calmness of their minds and the unruffled patience with which they prosecute their studies.

But it is very different with great moral problems, How can a man go on if he does not feel sure of the justice or the love of God? Every step of the way is hampered by doubt. How can he serve a God whom he does not feel sure he can either trust or respect? How can he love a God Who holds in His Hands the reins of the universe and yet puts him to such torture of mind and body? Either He is not Almighty or He is not loving in the only sense in which we understand the word. The same man will be calm, strong and patient in the study of an intellectual problem which takes years to solve, who will become angry, bitter and hardened before a moral difficulty. And it is not surprising that it should be so. The intellectual difficulty does not press upon life and character as the moral does. He may never be able to solve the one, but it has not the same issues at stake. His moral and spiritual life are wholly independent of its solution. But his whole character is hampered and held back by the other, for every step of its advance and development depends upon the relation of the soul to God.

Moreover, it is undoubtedly true that it is the more thoughtful and earnest people who feel most keenly the mysteries and difficulties which beset them on all sides. It was Abraham of old who cried, “Wilt thou destroy the just with the wicked, that be far from thee, O Lord?” And the Psalmist who complained, “I do see the ungodly in prosperity; they came in no misfortune like other folk, neither are they plagued like other men”. And in our own day, it is with the anxious questionings of those who feel such difficulties pressing between them and their faith, and who deal with them in the spirit of reverence, rather than with irreverent cavillers who criticize for criticism’s sake, that we are concerned.

Religion therefore may profess to give, and may succeed in giving, an answer as to the meaning and reason of suffering that is entirely satisfactory to the intellect and the moral sense. It may lay the mystery bare and set the conscience free from any doubt as to the goodness and justice of God in permitting it, And learned men may assure the ignorant and unlearned that there is no reasonable ground for disturbance or complaint. Yet I think many of us would be surprised to find how short a way such answers would lead us towards peace in the hour of darkness and distress.

2. But as a matter of fact the Christian religion does not profess to give an explanation of the mystery of suffering. It sets before itself a loftier task – to train the soul in such confidence in God’s justice and love that it is ready to accept the suffering that He permits in undisturbed peace: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”, It brings the soul into such direct and close personal relationship with God Himself, that it no longer judges, as one does a stranger, His character by His actions, but as one does an intimate friend, His actions by His character. “I know God,” so it cries, “and knowing Him I do not question His wisdom or doubt His love, because I cannot understand the reason of all He does.”

There are many mysteries in life which we long to have explained, but the office of religion is not to make all such mysteries clear to the understanding, but to remove from the heart all possible doubt as to the Character of God, and this can never be done by mere explanation, for every new difficulty would demand a new explanation; it can only be done by revealing to the soul, not certain things about God, but God Himself. The irritation and bitterness that arise in men from the moral problems of life, proceed not from the intellect but from the heart. We demand a clearing of the mind, but what we really need is a clearing of the heart. It is not the problem that disturbs us, but the character of the Person who is responsible for the problem. And the cleansing of the heart from all its bitterness and anxiety must be the work of God Himself in His intimate intercourse with the soul, As we get to know Him better we learn to trust Him and to leave ourselves with confidence in His Hands.

A friendship that depends upon constant explanation of everything that is not clearly understood, is not a friendship that can last the test of trial. Friendship must be based upon such personal knowledge, growing out of mutual affection, that doubt becomes impossible. In the light of character we judge action. My friend may do things that seem strange and call forth criticism from those who do not know him personally, but I, knowing the man, judge his actions differently. Indeed it is not the overwrought utterance of religious fanaticism but the sober language of intimate friendship which enabled Job to say, “Though He slay me yet will I trust Him”. Such words might be used in human relationships between two friends.

And the Catholic Church has as its end the bringing of the soul into such intimate friendship with God. It may desire as much as any one else to see deeper into the mysteries of life, it may be as keen as possible in its research, using every power at its command to probe further, but the devout Christian is able to possess his soul in unruffled calm, assured that all he may ever know or not know can never disturb his confidence in God.

Suffering and sorrow therefore, entering as they do so largely into the experience of mankind, and forming so large a part of his discipline, are dealt with by Our Lord at a very early stage in the spiritual life. No one indeed can have made any endeavour to conform himself to the laws of the first two Beatitudes, without experiencing that the effort to serve Our Lord brings its own peculiar sufferings, in addition to those that come in the ordinary course of nature. The third Beatitude therefore deals separately with all that causes sorrow in life: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”.

Now it is scarcely necessary to remark that in this Beatitude our Lord is not uttering a blessing upon the spirit of pessimism or on the melancholic temper.

There are men who are by nature pessimists, whose natural disposition leads them to see and to dwell upon the darker side of life. And there are others who are naturally optimists. Such dispositions have not, in themselves, any moral value, no more than the fact of having an artistic temperament. A man is no better because he instinctively sees the sorrows of life, than another is because he sees its joys. Whatever moral value attaches to them, springs from the effort of the will to overcome the faults and weaknesses that necessarily spring from any one-sided and imperfect view of things.

We cannot therefore suppose that this Beatitude is the expression of the sympathy of the man of sorrows with pessimism, or with men by nature melancholy.

No doubt most of us have known what it is when our ears have been wearied with the frothy chatter of superficial optimism, in times of sorrow and distress to turn to the sad tones of the pessimist as being something finer and truer. And yet in other moods we turn from them with anger and resentment. We feel that such a temper is not true, Its appearance of courage is deceptive and unreal, it poisons all the springs of life and discolours all its beauty, and often degenerates into discontent, cynicism and unbelief.

There is no Beatitude on such mourning as this, it brings no blessing either upon the mourner himself or upon those with whose sorrows he would sympathize.

Each of these dispositions indeed if schooled and disciplined has its place and its work amongst mankind. But only in so far as it faces facts and refuses to close its eyes to things as they are. The joyous nature that has tasted sorrow and felt the smart of pain and borne with courage life’s difficulties, comes out mellowed, purified and strengthened, his laughter has lost that uproarious vulgarity that is so offensive, his language is free from exaggeration, and filled with the strong tones of hope and inspiration, and he is able to cheer many a sad heart and lighten many a burden. And the man who, naturally melancholy, has forced himself to look for and to find life’s recompenses, and to lay hold of the joys that others see, and to rejoice with them that do rejoice, as well as to weep with them that weep, finds his sympathies enlarged and widened, and knows that he has not lost, but gained infinitely both in knowledge and power, not only for himself but for others. “There has sprung up for him a light in the darkness and joyful gladness for him that is true of heart.” His pessimism is robbed of every element of exaggeration and discontent. His character has gained just that blending of cloud and sunshine that makes the whole land fertile.

For the fact is that each of these types of character is merely the raw material which is capable of producing great virtues, if disciplined and sanctified by grace, and, if left to itself, generates its own faults. And it is impossible to say that one of them is more productive of virtue than the other. Each has produced its Saints.

The Beatitude therefore is uttered not upon the material out of which character is formed, but upon the men who so use the sorrows and sufferings they experience as to carve upon that material the design of God.

We need not pride ourselves upon the fact that we naturally take a more joyous view of life than some others, or, on the other hand, that we see deeper than many into its sorrows, The question is rather, how do we take the sufferings when they come? Do we let them do with us what they will, and affect us just in the way in which such things have a tendency to affect us, or do we rise up and meet them, realizing that they cannot harm us without our own consent?

Now it is undoubtedly true that in our modern civilization there are not a few who use all its arts and gifts to avoid, or escape from everything that interferes with their enjoyment. They look upon pain and sorrow as the only real evils of life, evils to be avoided at all costs. They wish to see and hear of these things as little as possible, and if the world is full of them and they cannot help hearing of the troubles of others, they use every means in their power to shield themselves from their approach, They will quench the first smart of pain by the deadening influence of anesthetics, and fly from sorrow into the wild forgetfulness of amusement or dissipation, These are the chief things which they fear and dread, Their whole life is one constant flight from that which in truth cannot be avoided, or a seizing with a reckless disregard of consequences upon any instrument with which for a moment they can drive them off, till at last, enfeebled, demoralized and without resources their enemy comes in upon them like a flood and overwhelms them.

For every effort to escape results at the most in postponing the evil day, and often the gathering tide sweeps away the barriers that were set against it, bearing them down with relentless force and with accumulated agony upon the helpless creature that is crushed, beaten and defeated in the fearful wreckage that overwhelms it.

For it is the lot of all men to meet and be tested by sorrow and suffering – alas! for those who have spent their strength and exhausted their resources in the vain effort to avoid them. They have treated these mighty powers as their enemies, and have made them their enemies indeed.

And there are others who with a morbid and unhealthy mind feed themselves upon their sorrows, their failures, their sufferings, and revel in the luxury of melancholy. To some men sorrow acts as a stimulant and drives them forth to help the world, to others there is no greater source of selfishness. There are not a few, more commonly perhaps women than men, into whose lives, full of kindliness and unselfish devotion, a great sorrow has come with a deadening and stupefying effect, driving them in upon themselves in morbid and self-centred sadness. Their only wish henceforth is to shut themselves in with their grief. If in time life’s interests and possibilities begin to appeal to them they turn from them almost as a temptation to disloyalty. They make their grief a narcotic which numbs and deadens them to the claims of life and duty. How often too physical suffering has been the cause of a selfish and exacting life. There are few sights sadder than to see a person who once was devout and unselfish fall gradually under the demoralizing effects of ill-health, the luxuries which illness needs, little by little breaking down habits of self-discipline and undermining the carefully built edifice of the spiritual life, till the whole horizon of the soul becomes contracted and narrowed under the influence of an exacting selfishness.

To such persons, to whichever of these classes they may belong, our Lord’s words must come with a startling surprise: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”.

He tells the world that sorrow and suffering have within them the latent power of bringing to those who have to bear them, Beatitude – happiness. It is a bracing call to look their troubles in the face, to study them with a new interest, to stretch forth their hands and try if they cannot lift the dark veil that cloaks them, and see if the forms beneath are so cruel and pitiless as they seem. It makes a man pause indeed in his flight from trouble when he is told that it is not what it seems, that it comes not to hurt but to bless, or if it does hurt, it is with the surgeon’s knife that only hurts to heal.

And it surely is a great thing, in a world so full of misery, where the lot of many is cast in dark places, nay, where it is certain that every one will some time or other have to bear his share of sorrow and pain, to know that these things are not meaningless or useless, the result of fate, or of the indifference of a God who is too great or too far off to heed the piteous cry of His creatures.

In this Beatitude our Lord declares the very opposite. It is not purposeless, It is not inconsistent with Love. It is not merely the action of blind and mindless forces. Suffering has a purpose. It is not only the most searching test of character, it has a revelation of its own to give to the soul that will receive it, a revelation which nothing else can give, Behind the suffering stands One who comes to comfort the sufferer, calling to him to receive such consolation as is well worth all he may have to bear: “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”, So He pleads with the soul – turn to Me and you shall learn what you could never learn otherwise, the gentleness, the sympathy and the tenderness of God towards the creature of His Hand.

In human relations there is nothing like suffering to show us who are our friends. Some whom we trusted depart and leave us, others from whom we expected nothing, we get much. It is an experience worth a good deal of suffering to learn the unexpected kindness it draws forth. To many it has been a revelation. It has shown us a gentleness and sympathy in people in whom we least expected to find it. Many a man who has had the character of being hard and inconsiderate has, in presence of suffering, revealed himself almost like a different being. There are children who have never known their parents, wives who have never known their husband till suffering came and broke through the reserve that concealed a deep and rich side of their nature, and they might have lived and died without ever disclosing it, if suffering had not come and forced them to reveal it.

Yes, the chamber of sickness and death, the open grave, the shadow of an overwhelming sorrow, the wreck of life’s hopes and fortunes, has brought to many a man more joy than sorrow, for they have been the means of breaking down the barriers that kept two souls apart, and of showing to each what was hidden away in the depths of the other’s character, or shut in behind an impenetrable pride and reserve. It cannot be doubted that there are not a few to whom such sorrows have been turned into joy – the joy of finding light and love and sympathy where it was least expected. And humanly speaking nothing but the crushing hand of suffering could have done it.

Suffering then, in human relations, acts as the instrument of revealing the deepest and noblest things that are hidden away in human character. If there be love or kindness or the power of sympathy in that strong hard reserved man, I shall perhaps never know it unless some one who is near and dear to him suffers.

And it is the same in a certain sense with God. We have all been taught from our childhood the attributes of God. We know that He is Almighty, All wise, All holy. We see the reflection of His Power, His Wisdom and His Bounty in the world that, like a picture, reveals the mind of the artist; we learn through our faith His Character as revealed in Jesus Christ, His Love, His Gentleness, His Mercy. Yet many a man in the joy of living or in the struggle of life has very little personal knowledge of God and little personal relations with Him. He accepts what his faith teaches him, but his experience teaches him little or nothing. Yet what our faith teaches us of Him is but to open the way for a more intimate and personal knowledge. For there is the revelation that God has given to His Church, and there is the revelation that He gives to each individual soul who knows Him and loves Him. No person can reveal himself fully to a multitude, however sympathetic it may be. He can only show himself as he is to a friend. The God that rules the universe is my God; in prayer and Communion, I learn to know Him, to enter into His mind, to feel something of His Love.

But there is a deeper, closer, more intimate revelation still. The revelation of God as the Comforter of those who suffer. The mind is so impressed with the thought of His greatness and power, that it is hard for it to grasp the deep reality of all that is revealed of His Character in Jesus Christ. We read how He wept by the grave of Lazarus, how He was moved with compassion at the sight of suffering, how the cry of sorrow was never unheard, but we scarcely realize that these attributes of tenderness and loving compassion are the attributes of the Eternal God which are being revealed to us. This is the Creator of all things, who in His strength sets fast the mountains and is girded about with power, who sheds tears of sympathy over the grave of Lazarus.

It is to those who lie under the shadow of suffering to whom all this becomes a reality; if they will turn to Him and open to Him their grief they get to know another side of the Character of God – not His power and might, but His pity and compassion, His tenderness and sympathy. It is as though we knew some strong man in public life, who could control the multitude by his sheer force of character, and whose clear intellect and strong will bore down before it all opposition, a man who was mainly known to the world for his indomitable strength, and we were to see such a man by the bedside of his dying child, tender as a woman, all his strength and force for the moment lost sight of in the utmost gentleness and love. It would be a revelation; we should feel that we had never really known the man before.

And so it is with God: on weary beds of sickness, through feverish nights of suffering, in hours of dark despair, to men and women from whom the world has turned with scorn, in homes of grinding poverty, He has come and shown what manner of Being He is. It has been amidst strange surroundings of misery and shame that some have learnt to know God as they never knew Him before. The sense of solitude and helplessness, the consciousness of utter weakness, drives the soul to turn to some one, and finding no human help it turns to God, and feels that it was worth all it had to suffer to gain such consolation and such a revelation.

There is a knowledge of God therefore that we can get only upon the condition of suffering. Those, if there be such, who have never suffered will never attain this knowledge. Those who have never wept will never know what it is for God to wipe away all tears from their eyes. Those who try to steel themselves not to feel, or school themselves to indifference, are closing the door against a great blessing and a great revelation, Our religion is not meant to make us less sensitive to the many trials and sorrows of life; it makes the heart more sensitive, for it makes our whole nature more refined. It lays it open rather to greater possibilities of suffering. A religious man will not feel less but perhaps more than an irreligious man the unkindness and misunderstandings of those about him. His religion in proportion as it is real will not blunt his nerves, nor harden his heart, nor deaden his senses, but the reverse. He will feel more keenly than any other man the sorrows of life. Our Lord was not indifferent to the cruelty and injustice with which He was treated; He felt it more than we can perhaps imagine, because of the intense delicacy and refinement of His nature. But our religion forbids us to brood in bitterness over what we have to endure, or to set our face like steel and harden ourselves to feel it less; it bids us turn to God for consolation and strength. It teaches us that there is One into whose Ear we may pour out our complaints without fear of bitterness or hardness, and He will teach us how to be at once sensitive and gentle and strong. The Beatitude is for the mourners; not for those who have risen above or sunk below the power of mourning, but for those who still can feel the smart of suffering, the wounds inflicted by others.

“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” In the light of these words the world looks different. The troubles of life that harden so many, and crush so many more, have the power of raising hose who meet them aright into a state of Beatitude in the intimate companionship of One who can turn their sorrow into joy. They bring to those who will receive it a knowledge of God that nothing else can bring. To them God is no longer merely the impersonation of strength and wisdom and power, but of gentleness and sympathy and love.

Such persons do not indeed gain any clearer knowledge of the mystery of suffering – why it is permitted or what is its cause- – but they do better, they reap its fruits, and with unruffled calm and strong confidence endure the sufferings that are their lot.