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