The death of a loved one is excruciatingly painful, and it would seem wrong to ask moral questions about the appropriateness of someone’s grief, as if it were possible to hold our emotions in check at such horribly difficult times. It would appear cruel to imply to those in mourning that there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do.
Christianity holds that reason is a distinct faculty that gives guidance to the emotions and sets proper limits for them. Our culture, however, worries that such a view elevates reason beyond moral evaluation and makes the emotions suspect. This is especially obvious in the case of grief. Because Christianity holds that death is the soul’s entry into a better state, it would seem to imply that grief is ultimately a mistake in judgment, the result of the emotions improperly taking control of human reason. Death, on the Christian view, would seem to be not a loss but a transition or even a promotion. If only we recognized our loved ones’ newly acquired heavenly bliss as we should, we would not grieve.
Doesn’t the Christian tradition thereby show that it is insensitive to the terrible suffering that people go through when they lose a loved one? It would seem that by putting reason in charge of the emotions, Christianity robs people of the ability to heal properly and wrongly blames them for natural and healthy emotions precisely at a time when they are most vulnerable. This understanding, we are inclined to think, does not do justice to the reality of grief.
This is how many today regard grief. While her model is based on dying patients, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s well-known book On Death and Dying is often used to describe the five stages of grief after a loved one has passed away. We begin with denial, as we refuse to acknowledge the death of our loved one. This is followed by anger that this is happening to us; by bargaining, as we search for ways to prevent or perhaps even reverse the loss; by depression, when the real grieving takes place; and finally by acceptance. Grief is what it is, and theological considerations may easily undermine the healing process, of which grieving is an integral part.
Yet St. Paul seems convinced that our mourning does fall under moral scrutiny. Responding, apparently, to the Thessalonians’ worry that deceased family and friends might miss out on the return of Christ, the Apostle insists that at the Parousia, God will bring with him those who have “fallen asleep.” This is the reason they must not “grieve as others do who have no hope.”
People throughout the centuries have wondered how to take Paul’s injunction. Some have seen in his words a distinction between grieving per se, which would be acceptable, and grieving excessively, as if completely bereft of hope, which would be characteristic of the grieving of pagans. Thus, Augustine explains that it is “unavoidable, after all, that you should be saddened,” and Calvin maintains that Paul does not “forbid us altogether to mourn, but requires moderation in our mourning.” This understanding takes the word as in a restrictive sense, itemizing the one kind of grief that is out of bounds for Christians. Thus, the Apostle would condemn only the kind of grief that fails to recognize the hope of resurrection.
Others have interpreted the passage as a categorical rejection of mourning, arguing that the hope of the resurrection invalidates the grief of bereavement. St. John Chrysostom, for instance, insists, “But none of this is painful to us, if we are willing to cultivate wisdom.” Jerome likewise insists, “If you really believed your daughter to be alive, you would not grieve that she had passed to a better world.” Such interpretations presumably take the word as in a non-restrictive sense: People who have no hope grieve, but since Christians do have hope, they ought not to grieve.
Gregory of Nyssa—in whose writings 1 Thessalonians 4:13 featured prominently—knew what it is to mourn the loss of a loved one. After losing one brother, a little more than two decades later, in 378, he mourned the death of another brother, Basil, the influential bishop of Caesarea. But it was the death of his sister Macrina the next year that particularly shook him. The Life of Saint Macrina and On the Soul and the Resurrection are both attempts to come to grips with the bereavement he felt.
He went to visit Macrina a little less than a year after Basil’s death, partly in order “to share with her the calamity of our brother. Indeed my soul was keening at so exceeding a loss, and I sought one with whom I might share my tears, one who bore the same burden of grief.” Upon arriving at her ascetic community in Annisa, however, Gregory found her on her deathbed: “Alas, when we came before each other’s eyes, the sight of the teacher only rekindled the passion, for she too was already in the grip of a mortal illness . . . . My soul drooped, my face fell dejected, and the tears streamed from my eyes.”
Not yet healed from the pain of his brother’s loss, he now faced his sister dying as well. Remarkably, as he describes it, the dying Macrina holds her passions in check much more so than he does himself. Macrina—“the teacher,” as he calls her—uses her own death to give her younger brother a final lesson on the soul and the resurrection. She expounds on what happens at the moment of death, explains how it is that the soul is able to recognize the body on the final day, and discusses with him the purification after death, the origin of the soul, and the nature of the resurrection body.
The entire dialogue—On the Soul and the Resurrection is modeled on Plato’s Phaedo—offers a response and corrective to the violent grief that Gregory experiences at his sister’s bedside. The discussion ensues as a result of the question of whether grief is appropriate in the face of bereavement. Macrina first allows Gregory to give expression to his grief: “She, like an expert equestrian, allowed me briefly to be carried away by the torrent of my grief.” However, her patience with her brother does not last long: “Then she endeavored to bridle me with words and to steer with the bit of her own reasoning the disorder of my soul. The apostolic saying put forward by her was: ‘One ought not grieve for those who have fallen sleep, for this is the passion only of those who have no hope’” (1 Thess. 4:13).
When Macrina breathes her last, Gregory is “numbed with grief,” as he recalls in The Life of Macrina. When he hears the mournful wailing of the virgins of the community, “my reason no longer remained steady, but as if submerged by a torrent in flood, was swept under by passion. Thereupon, disregarding the duty at hand, I yielded myself up wholly to the lamentations.” While convinced that reason ought to be in control and that the emotion of grief is problematic, he recognizes that the power of passion in the face of death often overwhelms reason.
Gregory’s critical self-evaluation stands in remarkable contrast with the way he regards the reaction of the monastic community to Macrina’s death. He does not describe their grief as an abandonment of “reason” or as a lapse into “passion.” Rather, their grief “seemed just and commendable.” “It was not as if [the virgins] were bewailing the loss of some affection or bond according to the flesh, or any other such attachment which human beings find hard to bear when disasters come, but it was as those being torn away from their hope in God and the salvation of their souls that they cried out and loudly bewailed in these lamentations.”
What they bewail is the loss of Macrina as their spiritual guide. Macrina “the teacher” was gone. And so the virgins cry out,
The lamp of our eyes is extinguished!
The light that guided our souls is taken away!
The surety of our life is dissolved!
The seal of incorruptibility is removed!
The bond of our harmony is broken!
The firmness of the vacillating is trampled asunder!
The cure of the infirm is withdrawn!
With you the night became for us as the day,
for we were illumined by your pure life.
But now even our day shall be changed to deep gloom!
“Loss of affection” is for Gregory insufficient reason to mourn. Such grieving would not be morally acceptable. It is the virgins’ concern for their spiritual well-being, their fear that this is now in grave danger, that according to Gregory makes it right for them to weep.
After an all-night vigil, the funeral procession—a “kind of mystic procession”—moved to the tomb. Upon arrival, one of the virgins cried out that they would “‘never look upon that godlike face again.’ Thereupon the other virgins cried out the same with her, and a disorderly confusion overthrew the orderly and sacred character of the psalmody, with everyone else sobbing at the wailing of the virgins.”
Gregory goes out of his way to highlight the indescribable pain Macrina’s ascetic community goes through at the loss of their leader. He in no way mitigates the hurt; nor does he in any way belittle the community for their unavoidable grief. He does not even criticize the virgins for their wailing, despite the chaos at the burial site. The only real criticism—regarding a lapse from “reason” into “passion”—is one that the bishop reserves for himself.
But Gregory goes beyond simply not criticizing others for their grief. In several of his funeral orations, he actively encourages the congregation to give full voice to their sense of loss. In 381, the presiding officer of the Council of Constantinople, Bishop Meletius, passed away, and Gregory was called upon to preach the homily at his funeral. “How can I lift up the eyes of my soul,” exclaims Gregory in his sermon, “veiled as I am with this darkness of misfortune? Who will pierce for me this deep dark cloud of grief, and light up again, as out of a clear sky, the bright ray of peace?” He asks whether passionate grief is unreasonable for the occasion, and he comments: “Is it not rather that I reach not the full extent of our loss, though I exceed in the loudness of my expression of grief? Lend me, oh lend me, my brethren, the tear of sympathy.” A little later, he exclaims: “Let alone, ye that would console; let alone; force not on us your consolation. Let the widow mourn deeply. Let her perceive the loss that has been inflicted on her.” Gregory appears not to restrain himself whatsoever, as he pastorally acknowledges his own grief and also draws along the congregation in his lamentation.
We see something similar in other funeral orations Gregory preached. The homily for the young princess Pulcheria, daughter of Emperor Theodosius and Empress Flacilla, who died at the young age of six or seven, must have been particularly difficult to preach. Gregory laments: “Who passed by the calamity without groaning? Who did not bemoan the loss of life? Who has not shed tears at the calamity? Who has not mingled his own voice with the common funeral lament?”
When only a year later the empress herself died while traveling in Thrace, again Gregory was called upon to attend to people’s suffering and loss: “For look how in a short time we have been gripped by such evils. Not yet recovered from the earlier blow, the tear not yet wiped from the eyes, we again experience terrible misfortune.” Not only do the people greet Flacilla’s coffin with lament, but the clouds, too, are “weeping gentle drops” of tears.
The funeral orations leave little doubt about Gregory’s recognition of the tremendous hold that grief exercises on people and his pastoral ability to enter into the suffering of his hearers. One might be tempted to conclude that he accepts the emotion of grief not just as an unavoidable reaction to the loss of a loved one but also as a healthy reaction. It may seem from his funeral orations that Gregory, free of the rationalism that denies a place for the emotions, holds to an integrated psychology that wholeheartedly accepts the life of the passions. Why else would he not only acknowledge his own grief but also encourage others to grieve?
The fourth-century bishop would seem to fit the contemporary mold, with his repeated and frank admissions of shedding tears at Macrina’s death and with his bold homiletic moves in which he sweeps his audience along in his own lament and unequivocally encourages his congregations to give voice to their grief.
The truth of the matter, however, seems to me more complex, both with regard to Gregory’s views and with regard to our common cultural acceptance of the passion of grief. In order to grasp the complexity of Gregory’s position, we need to go back to Macrina’s insistence—with an appeal to 1 Thessalonians 4:13—that grief is the passion of those who have no hope. While in his dialogue with his sister, the grieving Gregory presents pressing objections and even forces her to modify some of her most strongly worded comments, she remains adamant that the passion of grief implies a failure of the theological virtue of hope. Grief is a mistake in rational judgment. In the rhetorical form of the dialogue, Macrina is the one who most clearly articulates Gregory’s own view. The grieving Gregory answers his sister “rather brashly” because, he says, “I had not yet recovered my reasoning from passion.”
How, then, do we reconcile Gregory’s theological objections to grief with the pastoral sensitivity that he displays in his funeral orations? Is Gregory the theologian at odds with Gregory the pastor? I do not think this is the case. Each of the funeral orations has a point of transition that marks the end of his sympathizing with his congregation’s grief and the beginning of his attempt to lead them out of their grief toward genuine hope.
In the oration for Meletius, the turning point occurs when Gregory comments, “But let me have all tears wiped away, for I feel that I am indulging more than is right in this womanish sorrow for our loss.” He then insists that Meletius, whom he characterizes as the congregation’s bridegroom, “has not been taken from us” but “stands in our midst, though we see him not.” Meletius has taken off his tunics of hide (the body in its fallen condition) and is enjoying the beatific vision in the promised land. Gregory rejects grief with a reference to 1 Thessalonians 4:13, and he appeals to Proverbs’ “Give . . . wine to drink to those in sorrow,” which he understands to speak not of the kind of wine that causes drunkenness but of the psalmist’s wine that “gladdens a human heart.” And so he concludes the oration with a word of encouragement and hope: “Pledge each other in the liquor undiluted and with unstinted goblets of the word, that thus our grief may be turned to joy and gladness.”
The tipping point in Gregory’s oration for the young princess Pulcheria comes much earlier on. After emotionally entering into the grief of the royal family and the rest of the congregation, he presents his familiar contrast between reasoning and passion: “Now since reasoning has so clearly been defeated by passion, it may be time for the weary mind to regain, as much as possible, strength through the deliberation of reasoning.” He then moves to his customary quotation from 1 Thessalonians 4:13, followed by an extensive exposition on the benefits of life after death. Speaking of the resurrection of our nature to its ancient state, Gregory concludes that death is a “good,” since it is the “beginning and the path of change toward the better.”
A similar pattern emerges in his oration for Flacilla. Halfway into the oration, after he has allowed for and even encouraged his congregation to grieve, he explains that, as a physician, he is going to take the “evangelical treatment” from the Scriptures in order to offer his hearers “consolation.” He then proceeds to explain that the empress has gone to “royal places,” a kingdom whose innermost sanctuary one can enter only once the curtain of the flesh has been rent. He presents a number of biblical passages in support of his conviction that Flacilla is in a much better place now than she was before her death. Her soul has fled distress, grief, and groaning, while impassibility, blessedness, estrangement from evil, communion with angels, contemplation of invisible realities, and participation in God are hers forever. “Now then,” he concludes, “is it proper to grieve over the Empress, now that we have learnt that she has exchanged some things for others? She has abandoned an earthly kingdom, but has received the heavenly one; she has laid aside a crown of stones, but she has been crowned with that of glory; she has taken off the purple garment, but she has put on Christ.”
Gregory the theologian is not at odds with Gregory the pastor. There is not a rationalist Gregory and a psychologically sensitive Gregory. Rather, the pastor has the duty to take into account the theological problem of sin, which Gregory sees in the passion of grief that overshadows the hope of eternal life. He believes that it is his fundamental duty to comfort his congregation with the rational hope of the resurrection—a hope that for them is temporarily clouded as a result of their grief.
Just as Macrina, the “expert equestrian,” bridles Gregory with words and steers him with the bit of her reasoning, allowing him to vent his grief so as to let it run its course, so the bishop himself bridles his congregation, as it were, with his oration, allowing them to lament their loss, so that once their mourning has exhausted itself they will be open to the hope that the gospel offers. Gregory wants the passions to be depleted so that the message of hope can then be properly heard by the reasoning faculty. In this way, he tries to lead his audience to the same impassibility and absence of grief that he believes the departed loved ones have obtained already.
Contemporary worries that the traditional Christian view of grief pits “reason” and “passion” against each other, thereby delegitimizing grief and burdening those who suffer the loss of loved ones, are not entirely out of place. It is indeed possible to use the traditional Christian approach to disastrous pastoral effect. As we have seen from Gregory, however, such ill use is not inevitable. Instead, he shows that it is possible to acknowledge and appropriate the tremendous power of grief without reifying or absolutizing it.
We cannot exempt the passions, even grief, from moral judgment. That would allow psychology to trump theology and treat our emotional life as a sequestered area, impervious to moral and theological assessment. While treating grief as a morally neutral emotion is motivated by a genuine attempt not to add our negative moral judgment to the already heavy load carried by those who mourn, it has, in fact, the opposite result. Ironically, it effectively deprives the bereaved person of genuine comfort.
It may be true that, in the “natural” course of events, people’s grief subsides and they somehow accept the horrible experience of loss. But this recognition in itself does not offer comfort, because it is unable to provide genuine hope. It makes hope simply the acceptance or resignation that follows at the end of the dark tunnel of grief, and in no way does it contradict the reasons for grief. The loss is still only, and totally, a loss. Only when we have genuine hope of eternal life can we truly comfort those who mourn.
Hans Boersma is J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College.