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Give unto them that mourn a garland for ashes

28 November 2014

Tim Belben looks for solace from self-pity and finds comfort in grief ennobled by thanksgiving


Deus, deus meus: the words of Christ on the Cross are echoed in the first verse of Psalm 22

Deus, deus meus: the words of Christ on the Cross are echoed in the first verse of Psalm 22

MY WIFE of 52 years died recently, and I have been able to see at first hand the insidious effects of grief on the so-called "nobility of mourning". I have to admit that grief is often, if not usually, devalued by self-pity.

Mourning has no harmful effect on one's spiritual life. One can feel and show deep regret at a loss, in combination with thanksgiving for what was once enjoyed, and is no more. But grief at that passing is inextricably bound up with the self-pity of questions like How will I manage? What is the effect on my life? What can fill the gap? Where can I turn?

In grief, it is me, me, me; and difficult even to think of who else is struggling with the same burden.

The most poignant realisation, which takes time to find voice, is: she's not coming back. It still brings tears to my eyes. But these are tears of self-pity (what am I to do by myself?). So they are not to be encouraged: they always seem potentially spiritually harmful.

The counter is, perhaps, to remind oneself to temper the self-pity with thanksgiving: if there is any loss to grieve about, there is inevitably something to be thankful for having once enjoyed. I don't claim it is easy, but when is a necessary spiritual exercise ever easy? Indeed, we value exercise for its difficulty, toning up the reflexes to channel thoughts into a less harmful response.

The harm of self-pity is well explored in manuals of spiritual devotion, but most of us, when reading them to find comfort, do not pause to search for, or listen to, the answer. We have a reflex response tending to self-indulgence (and there is little doubt that self-pity is self-indulgence).

Think about Elijah and the still, small voice: the answer was uncompromisingly, "Go back and get on with the job. If you can't, get Elisha to do it. I, the Lord, have the remnant of Israel to look after - 7000 of them."

The spiritual danger of self-pity is that it turns the attention inwards, and therefore away from Christ and from the possibility of actual help or true consolation. Our objective in the spiritual life is surely to centre our being on our membership of Christ and our life in, and of, Christ. This involves - must involve - a surrender of self (which is not quite the same thing as self-surrender).

I am trying here to express the need for every believer to attain, or at least to reach towards sharing, the cross with Christ, to the point of joining in the apparent emptiness of Psalm 22 (the cry of "My God, my God . . . why hast thou forsaken me: and art so far . . . from the words of my complaint?") and for each Christian to be able, triumphantly, to follow this with "And Thou continuest Holy: O thou worship of Israel."

It seems to me that the imitation of Christ demands no less, but that self-pity is a very substantial barrier to our being able to get there. Joining with the self-sacrifice of the cross demands that self-pity is discarded.

Paul said to the Athenian philosophers: "In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17.28). I think it is not possible to have our being in him if we are absorbed with ourselves - as we are, by definition, in self-pity.

The so-called "nobility of mourning" is an attempt to sterilise mourning by removing the self-pity by thanksgiving, and so to turn the grieving into something higher - namely, regret combined with gratitude for the memory. I think that this is the way out of the corrosive effects of self-pity.

The corrosion is at its most destructive when it hampers contemplative prayer, preventing the emptiness that is required for our contemplation of the infinite, and preventing our coming to what St John of the Cross called the nada - the nothing - at the top of Mount Carmel. And the cry from the Cross, "My God, my God, why?", if we are to achieve it, demands an absence of the distraction of self-regard.

I maintain that mourning is grief ennobled by, and with, thanksgiving. This might be well understood by those whose job takes them regularly into that difficult area. For me, and for many others, however, it is a new realisation, and strangely comforting.

Tim Belben is a retired management consultant, a former member of the General Synod, and an oblate of St Benedict's Priory, Salisbury.

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