Daily Meditations

Hope-Bridled Grief: Discovering in Gregory of Nyssa a Christian Discipline of Grief (Part I)

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).

~ Hans Boersma, “First Things,” Hope-Bridled Grief:  Discovering in Gregory of Nyssa a Christian Discipline of Grief [Essay provided by Mr. John Bonadeo].

Hans Boersma is J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College.