Five million people across the world are dead from a pandemic. Millions more have suffered economic devastation. Social systems that seemed stable now feel precarious.
This is a worldwide collective experience of sorrow, combined with billions of families experiencing a sharper, more personal grief. How do we cope with such loss?
Since Jesus seems to base his beatitudes on the first 11 verses of Isaiah 61, it’s likely “they who mourn” in Matthew 5:4 refers most specifically to “those who mourn in Zion” after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire in the early sixth century BC.
But surely we can apply this particular beatitude more broadly.
I still remember the Rev. Greg Osterberg preaching on a winter day nearly 30 years ago: “A beatitude is an attitude about how to be.” It initially sounds a bit silly, but there’s great wisdom there.
In this second beatitude, Jesus may be speaking about the spiritual practices — or attitudes — that we can employ when facing the inevitable losses in our lives.
From the mourning in my own life, plus from journeying with others through the grieving process, I offer the following advice on developing an “attitude of beatitude” toward loss.
— Feel what you feel. If we embrace the grieving process, we will eventually find comfort. If we ignore it or short-circuit it, we will not.
We may have days of overwhelming sadness when we think we should feel better; on other days, we may feel OK and think that we should feel worse. Often, the conscious parts of our brains are not the parts most in touch with our spiritual needs.
Emotions — even the ones that make us uncomfortable — are God-given gifts. When we “lean in” to these difficult emotions, we better attend to the inexpressible groanings that the Holy Spirit offers to God on our behalf (Rom. 8).
— Welcome the gift of hindsight. It was only after my mother died that I realized she was the person who most deeply cared about such trivial events in my life as having a dental filling replaced. After my father’s death, I suddenly recognized that he was the main anchor tying me to my beloved hometown.
There is no need to punish ourselves for not recognizing all the blessings as we received them. No matter how actively we cultivate a spirit of gratitude in our lives, some gifts only become apparent in hindsight. There is consolation in realizing that there is always more for which to be grateful.
— Assist others who grieve. There are ways to help even the most private people in their mourning. If a neighbor loses a loved one, perhaps we can offer to housesit during the visitation hours at the funeral home, and perhaps we can do some light housekeeping while we’re there.
Perhaps we can serve as a greeter or an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at the funerals that take place at our parishes.
When a parishioner suffers a loss of some kind, I often offer to grab coffee or tea with them a month afterward and check in on how they’re doing.
— Cling to hope. There is a phrase that we use a lot in the funeral prayers of the church: “the sure and certain hope.” No matter the loss we have experienced, life for us and our loved ones has not ended; it has merely changed.
If we ever question the existence of life after death, perhaps recalling our connection with a loved one who has died will reassure us that death cannot be the end of the relationship.
If I ever feel that my emotions are limiting my ability to hope, I take those emotions to prayer with Psalm 139: “You understand my thoughts from afar. … From your presence, where can I flee? … My very self you know.”
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it.
“It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation.
“But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”
We can only speculate on what forms of comfort we will receive in heaven in accordance with Jesus’ promise in Matthew 5:4.
However, we can hold on to the sure and certain hope that when God destroys “the veil that veils all people” and “wipe(s) away the tears from all faces” (Is 25:7-8), it will be a comfort beyond our imagining.
Paulist Father Richard R. Andre is an associate pastor at St. Austin Catholic Parish in Austin, Texas. His homilies can be found at paulist.org/the-conversation/type/rich-thoughts/.
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