18 January 2017

Thinking on the beauty of sorrow

To be able to attend to the dying, to hear their confessions, to comfort or encourage them, and to bestow the Apostolic pardon upon them is a beautiful grace given to priests. Sadly, though, many families are now waiting until a dying person has already become unconscious before they call for the priest. Please, do not wait (in nearly twelve years of priesthood, I've not yet given Viaticum to the dying [both because families wait too long to call and because of hospital chaplains]).

This is on my mind today because I found this morning two photographs of my mother with my childhood pastor, Father John Beveridge, when she was in a nursing home suffering from a cancer of the brain. Although I do not remember seeing them before, I must have seen them before because they were with other photographs I do remember:

There is, naturally, no time stamp on either of these photographs and neither has a date written on the back, so I do not know exactly when they were taken, but she was only in the nursing home for a little less than two years.

These two photographs have brought both joy and sadness to my heart on this twenty-ninth anniversary of her death. I miss her dearly still after all these years (which is only right) and will, thankfully, be able to make a quick return to Quincy this afternoon to visit her grave.

The combination of joy and sorrow present in my heart this morning, keeps my mind returning to a brilliant article I read only a few days ago by Michael David Elam, "The AinulindalĂ« and J.R.R. Tolkien's Beautiful Sorrow in Christian Tradition" (VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review [28], 2011).

Elam is right to say that "J.R.R. Tolkien suggests that a kind of beauty can arise which springs predominantly from sorrow" (61). Anyone who has read Tolkien's works with even a little attention cannot help but notice this and, more often than not, be puzzled by this suggestion.

Following the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Elam notes that "one is moved to sorrow when goodness is absent; and if goodness is absent, the only proper response is sorrow. If one responds with sorrow at the lack of goodness, one does what is proper, and in doing so the act has beauty" (68).

At the conclusion of his essay, Elam summarizes Tolkien's vision of a beautiful sorrow:
Hope seeks what it lacks, and suffers in its want, and sorrow accepts that there is meaning in pain. Despite being overshadowed by evil, sorrow recognizes the divine and hopes for its goodness. And what is hoped for can be received. So it is fitting that sorrow should hope for comfort because comfort is offered to those who, fittingly, endure evil, and to do what is fitting is good. And to do what is good is beautiful (76).
A great many people today are afraid of grief and sorrow because they do not recognize its beauty. Having something of a melancholic disposition, I have often found the experience of sorrow to be something of a comfort because it reminds me both that I love and that am I loved. What can be more beautiful than knowing this? 

Today, the knowledge of my love for my mother and the knowledge of her love for me is very close to me. This knowledge of love fills my heart with joy even as her physical absence fills me with sorrow. Each year, this day - and many others - is filled with something of an intermingling of a joy and grief, which is beautiful because it is good.

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