Daily Meditations

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

When Macrina breathes her last, Gregory is “numbed with grief,” as he recalls in The Life of Macrina. When he hears the mournful wailing of the virgins of the community, “my reason no longer remained steady, but as if submerged by a torrent in flood, was swept under by passion. Thereupon, disregarding the duty at hand, I yielded myself up wholly to the lamentations.” While convinced that reason ought to be in control and that the emotion of grief is problematic, he recognizes that the power of passion in the face of death often overwhelms reason.

Gregory’s critical self-evaluation stands in remarkable contrast with the way he regards the reaction of the monastic community to Macrina’s death. He does not describe their grief as an abandonment of “reason” or as a lapse into “passion.” Rather, their grief “seemed just and commendable.” “It was not as if [the virgins] were bewailing the loss of some affection or bond according to the flesh, or any other such attachment which human beings find hard to bear when disasters come, but it was as those being torn away from their hope in God and the salvation of their souls that they cried out and loudly bewailed in these lamentations.”

What they bewail is the loss of Macrina as their spiritual guide. Macrina “the teacher” was gone. And so the virgins cry out,

The lamp of our eyes is extinguished!
The light that guided our souls is taken away!
The surety of our life is dissolved!
The seal of incorruptibility is removed!
The bond of our harmony is broken!
The firmness of the vacillating is trampled asunder!
The cure of the infirm is withdrawn!                                                                                                                                                        With you the night became for us as the day,
for we were illumined by your pure life.
But now even our day shall be changed to deep gloom!

“Loss of affection” is for Gregory insufficient reason to mourn. Such grieving would not be morally acceptable. It is the virgins’ concern for their spiritual well-being, their fear that this is now in grave danger, that according to Gregory makes it right for them to weep.

After an all-night vigil, the funeral procession—a “kind of mystic procession”—moved to the tomb. Upon arrival, one of the virgins cried out that they would “‘never look upon that godlike face again.’ Thereupon the other virgins cried out the same with her, and a disorderly confusion overthrew the orderly and sacred character of the psalmody, with everyone else sobbing at the wailing of the virgins.”

Gregory goes out of his way to highlight the indescribable pain Macrina’s ascetic community goes through at the loss of their leader. He in no way mitigates the hurt; nor does he in any way belittle the community for their unavoidable grief. He does not even criticize the virgins for their wailing, despite the chaos at the burial site. The only real criticism—regarding a lapse from “reason” into “passion”—is one that the bishop reserves for himself.

But Gregory goes beyond simply not criticizing others for their grief. In several of his funeral orations, he actively encourages the congregation to give full voice to their sense of loss. In 381, the presiding officer of the Council of Constantinople, Bishop Meletius, passed away, and Gregory was called upon to preach the homily at his funeral. “How can I lift up the eyes of my soul,” exclaims Gregory in his sermon, “veiled as I am with this darkness of misfortune? Who will pierce for me this deep dark cloud of grief, and light up again, as out of a clear sky, the bright ray of peace?” He asks whether passionate grief is unreasonable for the occasion, and he comments: “Is it not rather that I reach not the full extent of our loss, though I exceed in the loudness of my expression of grief? Lend me, oh lend me, my brethren, the tear of sympathy.” A little later, he exclaims: “Let alone, ye that would console; let alone; force not on us your consolation. Let the widow mourn deeply. Let her perceive the loss that has been inflicted on her.” Gregory appears not to restrain himself whatsoever, as he pastorally acknowledges his own grief and also draws along the congregation in his lamentation.

We see something similar in other funeral orations Gregory preached. The homily for the young princess Pulcheria, daughter of Emperor Theodosius and Empress Flacilla, who died at the young age of six or seven, must have been particularly difficult to preach. Gregory laments: “Who passed by the calamity without groaning? Who did not bemoan the loss of life? Who has not shed tears at the calamity? Who has not mingled his own voice with the common funeral lament?”

When only a year later the empress herself died while traveling in Thrace, again Gregory was called upon to attend to people’s suffering and loss: “For look how in a short time we have been gripped by such evils. Not yet recovered from the earlier blow, the tear not yet wiped from the eyes, we again experience terrible misfortune.” Not only do the people greet Flacilla’s coffin with lament, but the clouds, too, are “weeping gentle drops” of tears.

The funeral orations leave little doubt about Gregory’s recognition of the tremendous hold that grief exercises on people and his pastoral ability to enter into the suffering of his hearers. One might be tempted to conclude that he accepts the emotion of grief not just as an unavoidable reaction to the loss of a loved one but also as a healthy reaction. It may seem from his funeral orations that Gregory, free of the rationalism that denies a place for the emotions, holds to an integrated psychology that wholeheartedly accepts the life of the passions. Why else would he not only acknowledge his own grief but also encourage others to grieve?

The fourth-century bishop would seem to fit the contemporary mold, with his repeated and frank admissions of shedding tears at Macrina’s death and with his bold homiletic moves in which he sweeps his audience along in his own lament and unequivocally encourages his congregations to give voice to their grief.

The truth of the matter, however, seems to me more complex, both with regard to Gregory’s views and with regard to our common cultural acceptance of the passion of grief. In order to grasp the complexity of Gregory’s position, we need to go back to Macrina’s insistence—with an appeal to 1 Thessalonians 4:13—that grief is the passion of those who have no hope. While in his dialogue with his sister, the grieving Gregory presents pressing objections and even forces her to modify some of her most strongly worded comments, she remains adamant that the passion of grief implies a failure of the theological virtue of hope. Grief is a mistake in rational judgment. In the rhetorical form of the dialogue, Macrina is the one who most clearly articulates Gregory’s own view. The grieving Gregory answers his sister “rather brashly” because, he says, “I had not yet recovered my reasoning from passion.”

~ 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.