Daily Meditations

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

How, then, do we reconcile Gregory’s theological objections to grief with the pastoral sensitivity that he displays in his funeral orations? Is Gregory the theologian at odds with Gregory the pastor? I do not think this is the case. Each of the funeral orations has a point of transition that marks the end of his sympathizing with his congregation’s grief and the beginning of his attempt to lead them out of their grief toward genuine hope.

In the oration for Meletius, the turning point occurs when Gregory comments, “But let me have all tears wiped away, for I feel that I am indulging more than is right in this womanish sorrow for our loss.” He then insists that Meletius, whom he characterizes as the congregation’s bridegroom, “has not been taken from us” but “stands in our midst, though we see him not.” Meletius has taken off his tunics of hide (the body in its fallen condition) and is enjoying the beatific vision in the promised land. Gregory rejects grief with a reference to 1 Thessalonians 4:13, and he appeals to Proverbs’ “Give . . . wine to drink to those in sorrow,” which he understands to speak not of the kind of wine that causes drunkenness but of the psalmist’s wine that “gladdens a human heart.” And so he concludes the oration with a word of encouragement and hope: “Pledge each other in the liquor undiluted and with unstinted goblets of the word, that thus our grief may be turned to joy and gladness.”

The tipping point in Gregory’s oration for the young princess Pulcheria comes much earlier on. After emotionally entering into the grief of the royal family and the rest of the congregation, he presents his familiar contrast between reasoning and passion: “Now since reasoning has so clearly been defeated by passion, it may be time for the weary mind to regain, as much as possible, strength through the deliberation of reasoning.” He then moves to his customary quotation from 1 Thessalonians 4:13, followed by an extensive exposition on the benefits of life after death. Speaking of the resurrection of our nature to its ancient state, Gregory concludes that death is a “good,” since it is the “beginning and the path of change toward the better.”

A similar pattern emerges in his oration for Flacilla. Halfway into the oration, after he has allowed for and even encouraged his congregation to grieve, he explains that, as a physician, he is going to take the “evangelical treatment” from the Scriptures in order to offer his hearers “consolation.” He then proceeds to explain that the empress has gone to “royal places,” a kingdom whose innermost sanctuary one can enter only once the curtain of the flesh has been rent. He presents a number of biblical passages in support of his conviction that Flacilla is in a much better place now than she was before her death. Her soul has fled distress, grief, and groaning, while impassibility, blessedness, estrangement from evil, communion with angels, contemplation of invisible realities, and participation in God are hers forever. “Now then,” he concludes, “is it proper to grieve over the Empress, now that we have learnt that she has exchanged some things for others? She has abandoned an earthly kingdom, but has received the heavenly one; she has laid aside a crown of stones, but she has been crowned with that of glory; she has taken off the purple garment, but she has put on Christ.”

Gregory the theologian is not at odds with Gregory the pastor. There is not a rationalist Gregory and a psychologically sensitive Gregory. Rather, the pastor has the duty to take into account the theological problem of sin, which Gregory sees in the passion of grief that overshadows the hope of eternal life. He believes that it is his fundamental duty to comfort his congregation with the rational hope of the resurrection—a hope that for them is temporarily clouded as a result of their grief.

Just as Macrina, the “expert equestrian,” bridles Gregory with words and steers him with the bit of her reasoning, allowing him to vent his grief so as to let it run its course, so the bishop himself bridles his congregation, as it were, with his oration, allowing them to lament their loss, so that once their mourning has exhausted itself they will be open to the hope that the gospel offers. Gregory wants the passions to be depleted so that the message of hope can then be properly heard by the reasoning faculty. In this way, he tries to lead his audience to the same impassibility and absence of grief that he believes the departed loved ones have obtained already.

Contemporary worries that the traditional Christian view of grief pits “reason” and “passion” against each other, thereby delegitimizing grief and burdening those who suffer the loss of loved ones, are not entirely out of place. It is indeed possible to use the traditional Christian approach to disastrous pastoral effect. As we have seen from Gregory, however, such ill use is not inevitable. Instead, he shows that it is possible to acknowledge and appropriate the tremendous power of grief without reifying or absolutizing it.

We cannot exempt the passions, even grief, from moral judgment. That would allow psychology to trump theology and treat our emotional life as a sequestered area, impervious to moral and theological assessment. While treating grief as a morally neutral emotion is motivated by a genuine attempt not to add our negative moral judgment to the already heavy load carried by those who mourn, it has, in fact, the opposite result. Ironically, it effectively deprives the bereaved person of genuine comfort.

It may be true that, in the “natural” course of events, people’s grief subsides and they somehow accept the horrible experience of loss. But this recognition in itself does not offer comfort, because it is unable to provide genuine hope. It makes hope simply the acceptance or resignation that follows at the end of the dark tunnel of grief, and in no way does it contradict the reasons for grief. The loss is still only, and totally, a loss. Only when we have genuine hope of eternal life can we truly comfort those who mourn.

~ 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.