Blessed are those who mourn

Is your self-control making you happy or making you miserable?

If you’re fortunate, it will be making you miserable. I think that’s the meaning of “Blessed are those who mourn”, because it’s the mourners who find comfort.

In English, to comfort originally meant to be strengthened or made strong.

The Greek is from parakaleó which breaks down into call (kaleo) from close beside (para). The word itself has a variety of meanings: ask, beg, implore, plead, as well as comfort, urge, and exhort.

If you aren’t mourning, you can’t be comforted.

Another reference that comes to mind is the difficulty of the rich in entering heaven.

Why should it be difficult for the rich to enter heaven? Because their wealth lends them temporal power and makes them more liable to fall into the illusion of self-sufficiency.

Riches aren’t the problem – it’s the illusion of self-sufficiency, rich or poor, that blinds us to our absolute dependence on God.

As in Buddhism, I think the message is that it is better to mourn – to openly suffer and find no comfort in the world – because whatever comfort and happiness we do attain in a state of pride and illusory self-sufficiency is doomed to fail.

Likewise the poor in spirit. As one commentary puts it:

Here the blessedness is that of those who, whatever their outward state may be, are in their inward life as those who feel that they have nothing of their own, must be receivers before they give, must be dependent on another’s bounty, and be, as it were, the “bedesmen” of the great King.

A bedesman or beadsman was someone who lived on a noble’s alms in exchange for praying for their master’s soul.

One explanation is that “bead” means prayer. The other explanation is that “bede” comes from the Old English for “bid, bidding”. The point might be moot anyhow, since prayer and bid share a common root. But the “bedesman” definition is more fitting in the quotation above, since it implies total dependence on the King, and readiness to do his bidding.

The love of suffering

Something strange crops up if you read the works of various Christian mystics. They start talking about the joy they find in suffering, and even their growing desire to suffer.

But it makes sense if you consider our capacity as human beings to adjust to drastic changes in circumstance.

I once heard of a study that examined people’s self-reported happiness before and after major positive and negative events. I’m sure the story has been distorted, since the study design is either implausible or horrendously unethical, as you’ll see.

The story I heard was that researchers examined the happiness levels of people who had suffered the loss of a limb, and another group who had won substantial sums of money.

The point was that regardless of the event, within a number of months both groups had returned to their previous levels of happiness.

The story might not be true, but the central claim is something we’ve all witnessed in our own lives and in the lives of others. When the unthinkably bad or unimaginably wonderful occurs, we adapt to it sooner than we would ever expect from the outset.

Our minds excel at papering over existential crises. They also struggle to accept radical discontinuities in our life story.

Whatever your ‘set-point’ of happiness is, chances are you’ll return to that set-point over time. It would take a truly deep, meaningful, and enduring change to make a lasting impression, for better or for worse.

That’s why these saints and mystics want to keep suffering. Suffering prevents their sense of self-sufficiency, their self-conceit, from papering over the cracks once more.

And there’s an inevitability to suffering that gives it primacy over joy. I mean, we could go in the other direction – desiring impenetrable success and self-confidence, wanting to not only paper over the cracks but fill them in and concrete over the whole messy thing.

But it will fail eventually, one way or another. We are all going to die, so why strive to build our happiness on things that will fall apart before the end…not to mention what might come after the end.

There’s another reference: the wise man who builds on rock versus the fool who builds on sand.

We are exhorted to “store up treasure in heaven”, which to my mind implies learning to love God and letting go of the illusion of self-control.

Suffering helps us do that, because the part of us that suffers the most is the part we need to let go of.

Spiritual pride

Our pride is not easily defeated.

Maybe you’re fortunate, and your suffering, your natural poverty of spirit has helped you to see through delusions of self-sufficiency.

But when those who mourn are comforted, they might stop mourning. They might start thinking they understand how it all works. They might begin to feel in control, to feel self-sufficient, albeit in a spiritual rather than a worldly sense.

With spiritual pride the rules don’t change: the solution is still to recognise that we are not in control, or that the self who feels like it is in control is an illusion.

The difference is that whereas this realisation first came as a relief – a comfort against the struggle and suffering in life – now that we have found a measure of spiritual pride it comes as a thief in the night, threatening to take away what feels like a great success, the fruit of our spiritual efforts and understanding.

I think this is the general rule: those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The freedom that comes with grace is a joy and relief when we are burdened and weighed down by suffering. But it is a threat and accompanied by fear when we already feel on top of the world, in charge of our lives.

And when that sense of being in control is spiritual pride, the prospect of being humbled is even more fearsome and confusing because it threatens to shake our spiritual foundation.

That’s why a recurring theme of mysticism is the principle of reversion: within the polar opposites of light and dark, joy and suffering, fullness and emptiness,  we should emulate the divine by embracing the lower half:

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

The principle of reversion never ends. God never ceases to lower Himself, why should we?

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Serving two masters

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Having a smaller, less stable income these days has left me newly appreciative of certain biblical passages:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Money too is more than food and clothing, and as such I think it gives us a sense of security and sufficiency that inhibits our sensitivity to providence.  Why should we ‘trust in God’ when we have permanent employment and a guaranteed income?

This balance between material security and spiritual dependence is complex, as demonstrated by the contending interpretations of the beatitude of the ‘poor in spirit’, and the story of the rich young man who went away sad.

It’s not wealth per se that is the problem, but our devotion to it over and above higher things; allowing it to dominate our lives and our minds.  At times it can be hard to tell whether we are the masters of wealth or the slaves, driven by financial imperatives with nothing higher to intervene or change our minds.

I think this is the significance of my decision not to follow the financial imperative back into mediocre employment for the sake of a reliable income and the sense of security and sufficiency it affords.  The decision to cease compromising my integrity for the sake of money means acknowledging something higher than my income in a society where a high income is more often than not the summum bonum.