Smart Parenting XXV + Applying Christ’s Beatitudes to Parenting: Blessed Are They Who Mourn


by Fr. George Morelli

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Mt. 5:4)

In the first article I wrote (Morelli, 2012) on applying the Beatitudes to Orthodox Christian parenting I pointed out that it is also no accident that after Christ's time in the wilderness confronting and overcoming the temptations of Satan, the evil one, He was prepared for His public life of teaching. The first of Jesus’ teachings is the Sermon on the Mount, in which He gave us the well known Beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12).i

Such a period of spiritual preparation for being aware of the enticements of the world, its adversities and how to confront them is not the usual practice of Eastern Christians awaiting Holy Matrimony. Rather, is not uncommon that in preparing for a holy and blessed marriage, the male and female shortly to become one flesh focus their attention on the worldly joy of marriage and relegate the spiritual factors to second place. An emphasis on the worldly aspects of marriage is certainly the main focus of secular society, in which a wedding is, for many, part of an elaborate booming and costly industry.ii Unfortunately, the focus is on merely worldly joy rather than spiritual joy In fact, however, there is an important aspect of spiritual joy that can and should be stressed in a true Orthodox Wedding. A passage in our Orthodox Marriage Service emphasizes such happiness. This is no better expressed than in the prayer sung by the choir after the sharing of The Common Cup:

O Isaiah, dance thy joy: for a virgin was with child and hath borne a son, Emmanuel, both God and man: and Orient is His name; whom magnifying we call the Virgin blessed.

What is seldom reflected on is a different and very necessary preparation for marriage and subsequent parenting. This is implied of the next verse of the prayer sung by the choir:

Ye holy martyrs, who fought the good fight and have received your crowns: entreat ye the Lord that He will have mercy on our souls.

What should be reflected on is the meaning of martyrdom in this prayer. The sense in the liturgy can be seen by the reference to having "fought the good fight." The meaning of this phrase comes right from St. Paul's Epistles to St. Timothy, which informs us what it takes to earn the crown of martyrdom. "But thou, O man of God, be fleeing these things; and be pursuing righteousness, piety, faith, love, patience, meekness. Keep on fighting the good . . . laying hold of eternal life, to which thou wast also called, and didst confess the good confession before many witnesses.” (1 Ti 6:11,12). In his second Epistle to St. Timothy St. Paul even makes it clear that any crown can only be worn after enduring adversity: “But thou, be watchful in all things, suffer hardship, ... I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course . . . Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness. . . ." [2 Ti 4:5, 7-8]

Certainly, not to disparage the joy of marriage, but unless the husband and wife, the leaders of the little Church in the home (Morelli, 2008), are spiritually prepared for confronting the evils in the world, in emulation of Christ who prepared for his public life by retiring into the desert, how are they going to understand themselves let alone convey to their children one of the most difficult to understand of Christ's Holy Beatitudes: Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Treasure and our attachment

Consider the words of Jesus Himself: "Cease treasuring up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust doth destroy, and where thieves dig through and steal; but be treasuring up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth spoil, and where thieves do not dig through nor steal. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Mt 6:19-21)

Mourning is related to what is treasured

Worldly Mourning

Consider that a synonym for mourning is grief. Mourning is usually understood as "the passionate and demonstrative activity of expressing grief."iii Using the word grief, St. Ephraim the Syrian (1997) gives the most succinct understanding of 'worldly' in contrast to Godly 'mourning' that I have read: "If you want to overcoming inappropriate grief [worldly mourning] never grieve over anything that is transient. If people injure you with words or upset you or dishonor you do not grieve; but, on the contrary, rejoice."

Obviously St. Ephraim is indirectly referencing Christ making the distinction between earthly treasure versus heavenly treasure. It is the loss of heavenly treasure that we should mourn. This is made explicit by St. Paul who told the Corinthians: "For the sorrow in accordance with God worketh out repentance to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world worketh out death." (2Cor. 7:10).

That the mourning talked about by Christ in the Beatitudes was not a mourning about worldly things was made very clear by St. Gregory of Nyssa (1954), the Church Father who has written most extensively - eight Homilies - on the Beatitudes, for example:

If one looks at it from the point of view of the world, he will certainly say that the words are ridiculous. . . he would enumerate the various kinds of calamities. . . widowhood. . . sad conditions of orphans. . . financial losses. . . unjust judgments in lawsuits. . . illness. . . he will show in detail every kind of suffering. . . and thus he thinks he will have made ridiculous the saying that calls blessed those who mourn.

It should also be noted that some writers on the spiritual life equate the Beatitude of mourning with compassion. Forest (2002), for example, would have the reader answer questions such as: "Do I weep with those who weep?" and "Have I mourned those in my own family who have died?" As spiritually exalted as compassion is, and as essential that it should be interiorized and practiced, this is not the Patristic [the Church Father's] understanding of mourning. Mourning is sorrow regarding our separation from God due to our sinfulness.

Godly Mourning

This is made explicit by Nicolas Cabasilas (1974) in his description of the second Beatitude when he labels it "godly sorrow." He derives his understanding that we "mourn and weep" from meditating on the deeds that Christ did for mankind. When we turn away from all that Christ did for our salvation we grieve at the loss of that which is "most precious."

Blessed TheophylactBlessed TheophylactBlessed Theophylact (2006) would see that the indifference to what Christ has done for us is sin. Such sins are not limited to ourselves but "for those of our neighbor as well." We mourn for sins, not for things of this life." In a previous article (Morelli, 2012) discussing the first Beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," (Mt 5: 3) I presented Blessed Theophylact's understanding of being poor in spirit:

In his explanation of The Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, Blessed Theophylact (2006) tells us that being poor in spirit means that our pride is crushed and we are contrite in soul. Such virtue is based on a foundation of humility.

This shows that the second Beatitude is the logical consequence of eliminating pride and acquiring humility. The next step up the spiritual ladder, so to speak, is that now we focus on the sins we have committed due to our pride-fullness, our separation from God, and we mourn them. The saintly Theophylact tells us:

"Blessed are they that mourn" for their sins. . .Christ said, "they that mourn," that is, they that are mourning incessantly and not just one time; and not only for our sins, but for those of our neighbor. "They shall be comforted" both in this life. . . rejoices spiritually. . . and even more so in the next life.

St. John of Kronstadt's spiritual meditation on mourning

St. John of Kronstadt (2003) provides us with beautiful imagery on this Beatitude, based on the Psalm (136: 1): "Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept: when we remembered Zion." Between the years c. 587-538 BC, the Hebrew people were made captive by the kings of Babylon most famous of which was Nebuchadnezzar and were exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, that foreign land. Some of the most poignant books of Old Testament Scripture recount the exile and also provide accounts of the many saintly First Covenant precursors of Christ. These narratives may be found in the books of Daniel (1–6); Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, (Dn 13-14); the Three Holy Youths" (Dn 1-3), and the books of Tobit and Judith.

The Three Holy Youths as depicted in the Catacombs of Priscilla, RomeThe Three Holy Youths as depicted in the Catacombs of Priscilla, RomeSt. John points out that Nebuchadnezzar can be likened to the evil one. The rivers of Babylon may help us to consider "our rapid rushing toward sin" or, alternatively, the "rivers of passion" coming forth from the evil one, the "jaws of Satan, the spiritual dragon" that we get caught up in. For the Israelites, Zion, the city Jerusalem, was the site of the 'holy of holies, the location of the Temple of Solomon, within which was Ark of the Covenant which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God Himself:

And the priests brought in the ark of the covenant of the Lord into its place, into the oracle of the temple, into the holy of holies under the wings of the Cherubim. For the Cherubim spread forth their wings over the place of the ark, and covered the art, and the staves thereof above. And whereas the staves stood out, the ends of them were seen without in the sanctuary before the oracle, but were not seen farther out, and there they have been unto this day. Now in the ark there was nothing else but the two tables of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt. (1 Kg 8: 6-9)

The Jews wept because it was the temple of the one and true God they had lost. We Christians weep over the loss of our heavenly Zion. St. John of Kronstadt describes the meaning of Christ's Beatitude on mourning this way:

We must weep over our heavenly Zion, which is the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, the true fatherland of Christians who have been distanced from it because of our sins.

St. John points out that for true [Apostolic] Christians there is also so much more to mourn: negligence in following God's commandments, as well as "indifference to the Body and Blood of the Lord--the heavenly manna."

St. John goes on to point out that "those who weep are really blessed." Why? Because by such mourning comes "consolation as a reward" - a Divine consolation. St. John tells us: "He [God] will send you the Comforting Spirit which will stop the attack of sin, extinguish the fire of passions and send down the dew of grace into your heart."

St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Blessing of Mourning

Mourning is blessed if related to the Divine

In the spiritual perception of St. Gregory of Nyssa we can see the blessing of mourning in the context of divine thoughts "concerned with the sublime things of Heaven [rather than] that which is carnal and clings to the earth." Thus he considers mourning "a sorrowful disposition of the soul which arises from being deprived..."

St. Gregory points out, for example, that "a soul [that] bewails its wicked life. . . cannot be excluded from the sorrow that is called blessed." For him, lamenting the sins and their consequences we "would become blessed through the pain [we] would feel in [our] soul[s]." He compares this situation to illness because he indicates that its "remedy" [a word related to a medical cure] is repentance. In this regard he refers to St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians concerning those whose sin has been confronted: "so that, on the contrary, ye ought rather to graciously forgive and comfort him, lest such a one should be swallowed up by excessive grief. Wherefore I beseech you to confirm your love toward him."  (2 Cor. 2: 7-8). The patristic commentary  on this passage by St. John Chrysostom, as found in The Orthodox New Testament (2004), notes: “To graciously forgive” (carivsasqai), aorist middle infinitive of charizomai, meaning “to graciously bestow a favor”; it is also found in verse 10. “Graciously forgive and comfort him.” What he is saying is, ‘It is not because he is deserving, not because he has demonstrated sufficient penitence; but because he is weak, it is for this I request it... lest he should become desperate.’

The first step in spiritual mourning: knowing the true good

The first step in true spiritual mourning is to know what is really good, without which any progress in holiness is impossible. St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us: "Therefore we must first know what is the true good. . .for only then can we attain to the mourning which is called blessed." The saint gives a very human example to aid in understanding this concept - a hypothetical situation in which two men are currently living in the dark. One of them, born blind, had never had sight, the other had been born with sight and had previously lived in a lighted area. St. Gregory points out that the "calamity" of their currently living in a dark place will have a different effect on each. The individual born blind does not, so to speak, know what he is missing. The man previously sighted "will think the loss of sight a grave matter."

With Holy Spirit-inspired insight St. Gregory tells us of the core of mourning:

Therefore I would say that the Word [Christ] does not call blessed the sorrow itself, but rather the realization of the good that produces this state of sorrow, which is due to the fact that the object of the desire [God] is absent from our life.

The second step in spiritual mourning

St. Gregory goes on to suggest what I will call the next step in spiritual mourning. He poses it as a question. "By what line of thought can this Divine goodness enter our consciousness, this goodness that can be contemplated but not seen?" This question is made more complex by considering the antinomy that is God Himself. The Saint points out that He gives being to all things, but He is Himself "ever-existing and has no need of becoming." This is as we pray in the Anaphora Prayer of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: "for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same." But out of this seeming contradiction comes the second step. This time let me use my own, very contemporary, example. How many times on Television game shows is some coveted prize hidden and set behind a closed screen of some type? The anticipation of winning often increases as the show contestant tries to do what it takes to "win" the prize. Often, engaged viewers develop heightened expectation as well. St. Gregory suggests a similar process can occur, but on a spiritual level:

. . .the nature of the transcendent good; for it is impossible that such a thing should come within the scope of our comprehension. We have, however, gained one advantage from our examination: we have succeeded in forming an idea of the greatness of what we have sought [our hidden spiritual prize, so to speak] by the very fact of having been unable to perceive it.

The sense of sorrow of not yet attaining the prize of great value, even doing things that have hindered accomplishment [sin] of obtaining the prize, both of which are the components of mourning can spiritually motivate us to follow the counsel of St. Paul that I quoted above: "Keep on fighting the good fight" (1Ti 6:12) so that we may be comforted in the hope of winning the prize and apply to ourselves St. Paul's other words: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course." (2 Tim. 4:7).

St. Gregory's psycho-spiritual caveat

St. Gregory's insightful psycho-spiritual warning is related to the distinction I previously made between worldly and Godly mourning. He tells us: "It follows from this that people who enjoy the present things do not look for better ones." This means that the virtue of hope must be cultivated in such a way that we look to and value that which is Godly over that which is worldly. This wisdom is also conveyed to us by St. Isaac of Syria (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) who tells us: "Let not your much wisdom become a stumbling-block to your soul and a snare before you; but [trust] in God." St Isaac tells us it is hope that has spiritual value in helping us to discern Godly versus worldly treasures: "Hold this unwaveringly in your mind, that hope for this present life may not hinder you from struggling and being victorious. For the hope in this worldly life enfeebles the thinking." Clearly, according to St. Isaac, it is hope in God that can and should guide our lives: ". . .let not your heart waver in its hope in the grace of God, lest your toil be profitless. . . ."

It would do well to reflect on the words of St. Maximus the Confessor: "Hope is the intellect's surest pledge of divine help and promises the destruction of hostile powers. Love makes it difficult or, rather, makes it utterly impossible for the intellect to estrange itself from the tender care of God; and when the intellect is under attack, love impels it to concentrate its whole natural power into longing for the divine" (Philokalia II).

Mourning our personal spiritual loss

To teach children, we must first mourn for ourselves

Traditionally, such mourning would be called and 'examination of conscience.' Such examination would normally be done by Orthodox Christians at the end of the day, right before bedtime, certainly before the reception of The Holy Eucharist and imperatively as a preparation for participating in the Holy Mystery of Confession and receiving absolution. In fact, mourning, as I have discussed in this article, could be the ethos, that is to say, the distinctive spirit of our examination of conscience and confession. The reason that our focus is not on the prohibitions given to us by God in the ten commandments (c.f. Ex 20: 2-17),iv but rather on the Beatitudes which show us how to attain salvation, theosis, that is becoming "partakers of the Divine Nature" (2Pt 1:4) and the sorrow, the tribulation of our minds and hearts so to speak, we need to have for having fallen short of our goal.

We can become enlivened by the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians that I quoted earlier in distinguishing worldly versus Godly mourning: "For the sorrow in accordance with God worketh out repentance to salvation. . . " (2 Cor. 7:10). In this we follow the counsel of St. John of the Ladder (1991). He begins Step 7 (entitled: On joy-making mourning) of The Ladder of Divine Ascent with these words:

Mourning according to God is sadness of soul and the disposition of a sorrowing heart, which ever madly seeks that for which it thirsts [theosis]; and when it fails in its quest, it painfully pursues it, and follows in its wake grievously lamenting. Or thus: mourning [strips the soul] of all attachment and all ties, fixed by holy sorrow to watch the heart.

A spiritual model for such a mournful confession can be found in the classic work The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (c.f. Endnote v). Such an examination of conscience and confession captures the ethos of one of my pastoral articles (Morelli, 2011) - that it is the spirit that should be behind the letter of the Law.

Helping Children Understand Mourning

How Children learn best

Children learn best when something is presented to them in a concrete way; they discover the lesson, understand the meaning or make connections to what they already know themselves and then they come up with the way they can apply their understanding to their own lives. They learn best when using the Socratic Method,vi that is to say, answering directed questions, the answers to which they have discovered for themselves. (Morelli, 2010b).

Linking something valued that is lost with mourning

One approach to start might be for the parent, catechist or priest to ask children a simple question: "Think of something you really like or value, something really cherished?" Ask the children to share their answers. The answers will vary according to the age of the child, be they quite young up to adolescent age. Younger children are likely to say something like a "best-loved toy", somewhat older children may answer a "favorite video game," adolescents possibly might give an example of "cherished electronic music device." 

Then, ask them a question like: "How would you feel if [what they said they cared for] were broken?" They will answer: sadness, unhappiness, sorrow, upset" or some similar words.  The adult should positively reinforce such responses: "Good job!" or "Great answer!" or some such (Morelli, 2005, 2006a, 2006b).

Learning what is the highest value

From that essential beginning step, the progression to discerning higher, and then highest values needs to be encouraged. From a purely cognitive-psychological perspective this step is the most difficult to master. God created mankind as sensory creatures.

Piaget's Epistemology

Our initial knowledge of the world is of a sensory nature. This was laid out for us in the seminal work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1952). In fact, Piaget labeled the cognitive stage or period from birth to 18 months the “Sensorimotor Stage.” The importance of sensory aspect of the infants initial 'knowledge' of the world cannot be understated. Consider John Flavell's (1985) description:

[the infant] exhibits a wholly practical, perceiving-and-doing, action-bound kind of intellectual functioning [that] does not exhibit the more contemplative, reflective, symbol-manipulating kind we usually think of in connection with cognition. The infant "knows" in the sense of recognizing or anticipating familiar, recurring objects and happenings, and "thinks" in the sense of behaving toward them with mouth, hand, eye and other sensory-motor instruments in predictable, organized and often adaptive ways [furthermore] it is a kind of noncontemplative intelligence that your dog relies on to make its way around the world.

However, ’treasuring,' that is to say valuing the things of God and our theosis versus the things of mammon, will require advancing to higher stages of cognitive development and overcoming lower levels of cognitive processing. Piaget would call this the “Formal Operational Stage” in which the child can manipulate abstract principles, organize ideas as well as objects and is capable of perceiving beneficial as well as the punitive aspects of law. I will take up some specific ways to help this development in children after some after emphasizing some needed distinctions in how we may talk about God and Godly things.

God and Godly things

St. Maximus the Confessor surrounded by his persecutorsSt. Maximus the Confessor surrounded by his persecutorsNothing could be both more real, yet also, from a human perspective, more abstract than God Himself. St. Maximus the Confessor says of God that He is "beyond knowledge because He is infinitely beyond every intellect, whatever the knowledge it embraces." (Philokalia II). St. Maximus makes this clear when He writes of God that:

God is one, unoriginate, incomprehensible, possessing completely the total potentiality of being, altogether excluding notions of when and how, inaccessible to all, and not to be known through natural image by any creature. (Philokalia II)

An insight into the conundrum of God's unknowability is actually suggested by St. Maximus when he tells us:

We do not know God from His essence. We know Him rather from the grandeur of His creation and from His providential care for all creatures. For through these, as though they were mirrors, we may attain insight into His infinite goodness, wisdom and power. (Philokalia II)

We can begin to apprehend God by focusing on His qualities or attributes. Using the language of theology, this is made clear by St. Thalassios:

For example, being, divinity, goodness and whatever else we attribute to God in a positive manner, or cataphatically, are to be understood affirmatively. Unoriginateness, infinity, indefinableness and so on are to be understood in a negative manner, or apophatically. (Philokalia, II)

From a teaching standpoint we can learn from the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon who wrote: "With whose beauty, if they, being delighted, took them to be gods: let them know how much the Lord of them is more beautiful than they: for the first author of beauty made all those things." (Wis 13: 3). "For by the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby." (Wis 13: 5). When using the attributes of God as a teaching tool we must keep in mind an important caveat given by St. Peter of Damaskos:St. Peter of DamaskosSt. Peter of Damaskos

In our ignorance, however we should not identify God in Himself with His Divine attributes, such as His goodness, bountifulness, justice, holiness, light, fire, being, nature, power, wisdom. . . . (Philokalia III)

Attaining some level of spiritual knowledge of God will take a synergia, that is to say cooperation between mankind's natural cognitive-perceptual functions and God's grace, to allow us the spiritual perception of the knowledge of God (gnosis) and eventual union with God (theosis). The saints have shown us that it takes a life of great preparation incorporating discipline (ascesis) by training of the mind and body by fasting,  prayer, repentance, stillness (hesychia), watchfulness (nepsis) and partaking of the Holy Mysteries of the Church to advance to such a stage. The Church Spiritual Fathers whose writings are in The Philokalia quoted in this article and in many of my other writings are the quintessential spiritual guides of the Church. As a clinical psychologist and priest I strongly urge, as do the holy Fathers themselves, that the counsels and practices in The Philokalia be undertaken under the guidance of a true holy and experienced spiritual father or mother. I highly recommend the work of Fr. Dumitru Staniloae (2003) as an excellent secondary source describing Orthodox Spirituality. 

Abstract terms related to God

The Church Fathers teach that what can be known of God is that which can be known from His creation. In this they are following the inspired writers of Old Testament Sacred Scripture and the insight of St. Paul. King David wrote: "The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands. Day to day uttereth speech, and night to night sheweth knowledge. There are no speeches nor languages, where their voices are not heard.” (Ps 18: 2-4). In the Wisdom of Solomon we read: "For the greatness of the beauty, and of the creature, the creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby." (Pr 13: 5). St. Paul's words to the Romans echo this same way of understanding God (1:19,20 ): ". . .because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it to them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived by the things which are made, both His eternal power and divinity. . . ."

St. Gregory PalamasSt. Gregory PalamasIn their description of God as He can be known, the Church Fathers employ abstract words. St. Gregory Palamas makes reference to God's "goodness, wisdom, power, divinity and majesty." (Philokalia IV).  He goes on to describe God as "the divine energy, intellected through created things, is both uncreated and yet not the essence." He then tells us St. Basil the Great's understanding of this from his treatise Against Eunomios: "....that created things manifest wisdom, art and power, but not essence.... Most eloquently does St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil’s bodily and spiritual brother, ....say.... "When we perceive the grandeur and beauty of the wonders of creation, and from these and similar things derive other intellections concerning the Divinity....”"

Helping children to understand God

The challenge to help children apprehend God in some way is to have them comprehend abstractions in a manner they are capable of. One way of doing this is to start with an abstract word they may frequently use and how they understand it. For example, the word beauty would be a good start. Most children develop some sense of this abstract concept rather early in age; their understanding is related to what they like and do not like, or what they find pleasant or unpleasant. For example, they may have a favorite item of clothing or they frequently hum a particular tune. Once again, reverting to the Socratic Method would aid the child discovering for themselves a deeper understanding of what they mean by beauty. Consider the following script:

"Ok, Jill, you said that you think this blouse is beautiful. Tell me, what could you or I do that would make it really ugly?"

"Jack, I hear you humming that tune; you must really like it. What could you do with the melody that you would hate it? You know, that it would sound really awful?"

If a child or adolescent is capable of giving examples of concrete things they find beautiful, good, true or wise and give the contrast, then this is a first step in cognitively processing abstract principles. Let me point out that my choice of these particular abstract terms was quite deliberate, as these are the attributes the writers of Sacred Scripture and Church Fathers have used in their understanding of God. (Morelli, 2010a)

God as the Source of Worldly Beauty, Goodness, Truth and Wisdom

The work of Albert Bandura (1986) is particularly helpful in explaining how to convey the concept that God the creator of what is valued is greater than the creation itself, and thus is of higher value. His work and that of his colleagues on modeling can be an aid in discriminating the true worth of what is valued. Citing an earlier study (Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1963) he points out: "children are much more likely to model the preferences and actions [of models] who control and dispense rewarding resources than preferences and actions of the recipients of the rewards." In the spirit of Bandura's work, children can be asked questions about the worldly objects they like or find pleasant. For example, they could be asked: Who created these objects? For the committed Christian, the answer is obviously 'God'. They then can be asked: Who has more value, (what Bandura would describe as 'efficacious rewarding power'), God who made this object or the object itself?

Elder Paisios of the Holy MountainElder Paisios of the Holy MountainA concrete example from the life of a contemporary elder

An event in the life of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Ageloglou, 1998) shows how understanding of God and His goodness as an abstraction was efficaciously applied to his life. The elder recounts this incident:

When I was a child. . .I loved Christ very much. I used to walk in the woods carrying a cross in my hands, chanting and praying. . .I met a fellow villager. When he saw me carrying the cross, he asked me: --What is this? --The Cross of our Christ, I replied. . . .Arsenios, [the elder's baptismal name] you are silly. You don't mean to say that you believe in God. He does not exist. These religious stories are made up by some priests. . . . His twisted thoughts filled my innocent soul with black heavy clouds. . .I began to think God does not exist . . .I asked Christ to give me an indication of His existence, so I could believe in Him. But He did not respond. Suddenly, a [favorable] thought. . .entered my innocent soul" --Hold on for a second! Wasn't Christ the kindest [good] man on earth. No one has ever found anything evil in Him. So, whether he is God or not, I don't care. Based on the fact that He is the kindest man on earth and I haven't known anyone better, I will try to become like Him and absolutely obey everything the Gospel says. I will even try to give my life for Him, if needed, since He is so kind.

The Loss of Beauty, Good, Truth or Wisdom

Now we can proceed to the next step. Once a child (or adult) has a sense of what these lofty abstract terms for God mean,  we can focus on understanding mourning, which is, itself, an abstract word. That is to say being sorrowful and grieving their loss of God and what we have done (sin) to have lost Him. "How would you feel if you lost God?" "How would you fee, if it were something you did that made you lose God? What we do to lose God is called sin? How should you feel about disobeying God, doing bad things, or not doing good things"?

"for they shall be comforted." (Mt 5: 4) 

Children (as well as their parents, in fact all Christians) may need help in making the connection between mourning and the eventual comfort they will receive as promised by Our Lord. Mourning is but the beginning step we have to take to reach the top step -- the comfort that Christ told us we will receive. The comfort is the joy (beatitude) of reconciliation with God and all mankind.

The penultimate example of what is required to be comforted is given to us by Christ Himself in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: 10-32. It assumes that the first step (sin) is not a wanted action but part of the brokenness of mankind. We should never want to sin, that is to say, voluntarily or involuntarily be separated from God or our neighbor. However, it is a consequence of our fallen state after the expulsion of our ancestral parents from Paradise (Morelli, 2006c; 2008), as we are reminded in our Trisagion Prayer for the Deceased: "for there is no man who liveth and sinneth not." Below I have highlighted in square brackets ([])some of the relevant  passages  which are the steps to reach Christ's promised comfort, what our response should be and the consequences:

Thus, I say to you, joy ariseth in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repenteth.... A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to the father, ‘Father, give to me the portion of the property which falleth to me.' And not many days after, the younger son, having gathered all together, went abroad into a distant land, [decision to separate from God] and there scattered his property, living profligately. [sin] But after he spent all, there arose a severe famine throughout that land, and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that land; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he was longing to fill his belly from the husks, which the swine were eating; and no one was giving to him. [sorrow-mourning-repentance] But having come to himself, [metanoia-a change of heart and mind] he said, ‘How many hired servants of my father abound in loaves, and I am perishing with hunger! [mourning-loss of God] I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no longer worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.’ And he rose up and went to his father. But when he was yet far away, his father saw him and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell upon his neck, and ardently kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no longer worthy to be called thy son.’ [confession-asking forgiveness]  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Bring forth the robe, the chief one, and clothe him, and provide a ring for his hand and sandals for the feet. And bring the calf, the fattened one, and slay it; and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; and he was lost and is found.’ [God's forgiviness] And they began to be merry. . . .to make merry and to rejoice was fitting, 'because this thy brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ [comfort] 

Parents, catechists and clergy (for themselves) and the children they are leading to Christ can discuss the meaning of this parable. The bracketed inserts above can serve as a guide to the application of the parable to ourselves and our children. The words of the psalmist can be meditated on: "The Lord hath heard, and hath had mercy on me: the Lord became my helper. Thou hast turned for me my mourning into joy" (Ps 29: 11-12).

The Church Our Heavenly HospitalThe Church Our Heavenly HospitalOur understanding of sin

All sin is a separation from God and our neighbor. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us sin is misuse of something good. He says " [We] misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things misuse is a sin." (Philokalia II).  The word for sin in Greek hamartia is understood in English 'as missing the mark.' The Trisagion Prayers which start out so many prayers and services in the Eastern Church considers sin an illness to be cured.  In this prayer we cry out: "All-holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God visit and heal our infirmities for Thy Name’s sake."

The Church in its wholeness and by the use of its Holy Mysteries is the place of healing. St. John Chrysostom states: "Did you commit sin? Enter the Church and repent for your sin; for here is the physician, not the judge; here one is not investigated, one receives remission of sins" (Morelli, 2008).

Bishop Alexander (Mileant)vii reminds us that sins are "like that physical afflictions, [that] are distinguished by the magnitude of their evil and destructiveness." He makes the pastorally useful spiritual distinction between mortal sins, which break our union with God and the accumulations of daily sins that he likens to "rubbish."  He cautions, however, that the accumulation of these daily sins can eventually "become more damaging than a single mortal sin.viii This certainly bespeaks the necessity of the use of all the healing Holy Mysteries given by Christ to His Church.

St. Isaac the Syrian with Contemporary EldersSt. Isaac the Syrian with Contemporary Elders

The Godless secular world is relentless in enticing us by any means to value the things of mammon. The proliferation of high tech media, employing dazzling lights and booming sounds have brought hitherto distant lures to our fingertips. Many are mesmerized by and act as if addicted to the use of modern technology and its contents.

Now more than ever is the time to heed the counsel of The Church Fathers that has pointed out that mourning is a lifelong process. All the more reason to keep before us that it is God and our union with Him which is of the highest value and our separation from Him by sin is our greatest loss. Thus to keep in mind the words of St. Isaac the Syrian:

There is no limit to perfection, for even the perfection of the perfect is truly without completion. And for this reason repentance [mourning] is bounded neither by periods of time nor by works until a man's death.

Let all the earth fear the Lord, and let all the inhabitants of the world be in awe of him (Ps 32: 8).


REFERENCES

 

Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of The Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S.A. (1963). A comparative test of the status envy, socia power, and secondary reinforcement theories of identificatory learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 527-534.

Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. The Guilford Press: New York.

Blessed Theophylact.  (2006). The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew. House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press

Cabasilas, N. (1974). My Life in Christ. (Carmino deCatanzaro, Trans.). Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Flavell, J.H. (1985). Cognitive development. (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Forest, J. (1999). The Ladder of the Beatitudes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Forest, J. (2002). Confession: Doorway to forgiveness. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Holy Transfiguration Monastery. (ed., trans.).  (2011). The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian(revised, 2nd edition). Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting I: Raising Well-Behaved Children. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II: Raising Well-Behaved Children. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.

Morelli, G. (2006c, July 29). Dealing With Brokenness in the World: Psychological Optimism and the Virtue of Hope. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliBrokenness.php.

Morelli, G. (2008, July 6). Good Marriage XIII: The Theology of Marriage and Sexuality. www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart%20Marriage-XIII-The-Theology-of-Marriage-and-Sexuality.php.

Morelli, G. (2010a, October 01). Beauty, The Divine Connection: Psychospiritual Reflections. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-beauty-the-divine-connection-psychospiritual-reflections,

Morelli, G. (2010b, November 25). The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The Mind of the Orthodox Churchhttp://www.orthodoxytoday.org/view/morelli-the-ethos-of-orthodox-catechesis

Morelli, G.  (2008, March 14). The Orthodox Understanding of Sin. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-the-orthodox-understanding-of-sin

Morelli, G. (2011 February 01). Pastoral Pointer: It's the Spirit Behind the Letter. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/pastoral-pointer-its-the-spirit-behind-the-letter

Morelli, G. (2012, January 02). Smart Parenting XXIV Applying Christ’s Beatitudes to Parenting: Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/view/smart-parenting-xxiv-applying-christs-beatitudes-to-parenting 

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. NY: International Universities Press.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (eds.) (1981). The Philokalia: The Complete Text compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (Vol. 2). London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1984). The Philokalia, Volume3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth.  London: Faber and Faber.

St. Ephraim the Syrian. (1997). The Spiritual Psalter. (Br. Isaac E. Lammbertsen, Trans.). Liberty, TN: St. John of Kronstadt Press.

St. Gregory of Nyssa. (1954). The Lord's Prayer The Beatitudes. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press

St. John Climacus (1991). The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

St. John of Kronstadt. (2003). Ten homilies on the Beatitudes. Albany, NY: Cornerstone Editions.

Staniloae, D. (2003). Orthodox Spirituality: A practical guide for the faithful and a definitive manual for the scholar. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press.

The Orthodox New Testament. (2004). Buena Vista, CO: Holy Apostles Convent.


 

ENDNOTES

i And seeing the crowds, He went up into the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. And He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are they who have been persecuted on account of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of the heavens.
“Blessed are ye whenever they reproach you and persecute you, and say every evil word against you falsely on account of Me.
“Be rejoicing and be exceedingly glad, for your reward is great in the heavens. For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mt. 5:1-12)

ii Wedding Cost Breakdown: http://www.bridalassociationofamerica.com/Wedding_Statistics/#costbreakdown

iii http://wordweb.info/
http://www.wordwebonline.com/en/GRIEF

1. Intense sorrow caused by loss of a loved one (especially by death) - heartache, heartbreak, brokenheartedness
2. Something that causes great unhappiness "her death was a great grief to John"; - sorrow

http://www.wordwebonline.com/en/MOURN

iv And the Lord spoke all these words:

I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.

Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth.  Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me:  And shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that shall take the name of the Lord his God in vain.

Remember that thou keep holy the sabbath day.  Six days shalt thou labour, and shalt do all thy works.  But on the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: thou shalt do no work on it, thou nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy beast, nor the stranger that is within thy gates.11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them, and rested on the seventh day: therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it.

Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be longlived upon the land which the Lord thy God will give thee.

Thou shalt not kill.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Thou shalt not steal.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house: neither shalt thou desire his wife, nor his servant, nor his handmaid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his. (Ex 20: 1-14)

v THE CONFESSION OF AN INTERIOR MAN, LEADING TO HUMILITY.
http://www.pravmir.com/article_358.html

"Turning my gaze at myself and attentively observing the course of my interior life I am convinced through experience, that I love neither God, nor  my neighbor, that I have no [religious commitment], and that I am full of pride and sensuality. This realization is the result of careful examination of my feelings and actions: 

-Turning my eyes carefully upon myself and watching the course of my inward state, I have verified by experience that I do not love God, that I have no love for my neighbors, that I have no religious belief, and that I am filled with pride and sensuality. All this I actually find in myself as a result of detailed examination of my feelings and conduct, thus:

1. I do not love God. For if I loved God I should be continually thinking about Him with heartfelt joy. Every thought of God would give me gladness and delight. On the contrary, I much more often and much more eagerly think about earthly things, and thinking about God is labor and dryness. If I loved God, then talking with Him in prayer would be my nourishment and delight and would draw me to unbroken communion with Him. But, on the contrary, I not only find no delight in prayer, but even find it an effort. I struggle with reluctance, I am enfeebled by sloth and am ready to occupy myself eagerly with any unimportant trifle, if only it shortens prayer and keeps me from it. My time slips away unnoticed in futile occupations, but when I am occupied with God, when I put myself into His presence, every hour seems like a year. If one person loves another, he thinks of him throughout the day without ceasing, he pictures him to himself, he cares for him, and in all circumstances his beloved friend is never out of his thoughts. But I, throughout the day, scarcely set aside even a single hour in which to sink deep down into meditation upon God, to inflame my heart with love of Him, while I eagerly give up 23 hours as fervent offerings to the idols of my passions. I am forward in talk about frivolous matters and things which degrade the spirit; that gives me pleasure. But in the consideration of God I am dry, bored, and lazy. Even if I am unwillingly drawn by others into spiritual conversation, I try to shift the subject quickly to one which pleases my desires. I am tirelessly curious about novelties, about civic affairs and political events; I eagerly seek the satisfaction of my love of knowledge in science and art, and ways of getting things I want to possess. But the study of the law of God, the knowledge of God and of religion, make little impression on me, and satisfy no hunger of my soul. I regard these things not only as a non-essential occupation for a Christian, but in a casual way as a sort of side-issue with which I should perhaps occupy my spare time, at odd moments. To put it shortly, if love for God is recognized by the keeping of His commandments ("If ye love Me, keep My commandments," says our Lord Jesus Christ), and I not only do not keep them, but even make little attempt to do so, then in absolute truth the conclusion follows that I do not love God. That is what Basil the Great says: "The proof that a man does not love God and His Christ lies in the fact that he does not keep His commandments."

2. I do not love my neighbor either. For not only am I unable to make up my mind to lay down my life for his sake (according to the gospel), but I do not even sacrifice my happiness, well-being, and peace for the good of my neighbor. If I did love him as myself, as the gospel bids, his misfortunes would distress me also, his happiness would bring delight to me too. But, on the contrary, I listen to curious, unhappy stories about my neighbor, and I am not distressed; I remain quite undisturbed or, what is still worse, I find a sort of pleasure in them. Bad conduct on the part of my brother I do not cover up with love, but proclaim abroad with censure. His well-being, honor, and happiness do not delight me as my own, and, as if they were something quite alien to me, give me no feeling of gladness. What is more, they subtly arouse in me feelings of envy or contempt.

3. I have no religious belief. Neither in immortality nor in the gospel. If I were firmly persuaded and believed without doubt that beyond the grave lies eternal life and recompense for the deeds of this life, I should be continually thinking of this. The very idea of immortality would terrify me and I should lead this life as a foreigner who gets ready to enter his native land. On the contrary, I do not even think about eternity, and I regard the end of this earthly life as the limit of my existence. The secret thought nestles within me: Who knows what happens at death? If I say I believe in immortality, then I am speaking about my mind only, and my heart is far removed from a firm conviction about it. That is openly witnessed to by my conduct and my constant care to satisfy the life of the senses. Were the holy gospel taken into my heart in faith, as the Word of God, I should be continually occupied with it, I should study it, find delight in it, and with deep devotion fix my attention upon it. Wisdom, mercy, and love are hidden in it; it would lead me to happiness, I should find gladness in the study of the law of God day and night. In it I should find nourishment like my daily bread, and my heart would be drawn to the keeping of its laws. Nothing on earth would be strong enough to turn me away from it. On the contrary, if now and again I read or hear the Word of God, yet even so it is only from necessity or from a general love of knowledge, and approaching it without any very close attention I find it dull and uninteresting. I usually come to the end of the reading without any profit, only too ready to change over to secular reading in which I take more pleasure and find new and interesting subjects.

4. I am full of pride and sensual self-love. All my actions confirm this. Seeing something good in myself, I want to bring it into view, or to pride myself upon it before other people or inwardly to admire myself for it. Although I display an outward humility, yet I ascribe it all to my own strength and regard myself as superior to others, or at least no worse than they. If I notice a fault in myself, I try to excuse it; I cover it up by saying, "I am made like that" or "I am not to blame". I get angry with those who do not treat me with respect and consider them unable to appreciate the value of people. I brag about my gifts: my failures in any undertaking I regard as a personal insult. I murmur, and I find pleasure in the unhappiness of my enemies. If I strive after anything good it is for the purpose of winning praise, or spiritual self-indulgence, or earthly consolation. In a word, I continually make an idol of myself and render it uninterrupted service, seeking in all things the pleasures of the senses and nourishment for my sensual passions and lusts.

--Going over all this I see myself as proud, adulterous, unbelieving, without love for God and hating my neighbor. What state could be more sinful? The condition of the spirits of darkness is better than mine. They, although they do not love God, hate men, and live upon pride, yet at least believe and tremble. But I? Can there be a doom more terrible than that which faces me, and what sentence of punishment will be more severe than that upon the careless and foolish life that I recognize in myself?

vi Use of Questions: The Socratic Method

Use of questions is actually related to a cognitive-educational model called the Socratic Method (Beck, 1995). Using this technique, a clinician, catechist, mentor or parent does not give data, knowledge or wisdom directly. Instead, the individual, be they patient or student acquires understanding as a result of answering a series of questions posed by the questioner. When a child discovers something for himself, or makes appropriate connections between things, it is far more meaningful than referencing authority. When a parent asks questions like "What do you think?" or, "How is this related to what we leaned in…(scripture, reading the Church Fathers, a homily or church school etc.)," chances are much greater that the child will grasp and retain important points. In this case learning the true meaning of the mourning and applying this to their lives. I must emphasize: don't preach. Keep it simple. Use clear, focused, examples.

vii http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/guidance_repentant.htm

viii "Mortal sins are gross violations of the Laws that impact upon the soul in the most destructive manner, denying it communion with God. These deathly sins include: Godlessness, engage in occult teachings (Hinduism, Theosophy etc..), deviation from the true Faith, mocking sacred things, blasphemy, sorcery, spiritism, murder, adultery, robbery, debauchery, calumny, perjury… Having committed a mortal sin and fallen away from God, the individual succumbs to the influence of evil spirits, who lead him still further into greater sins. Unless that person realises his sorry plight and turns to God for help, his soul will be damned forever.

"Daily sins, similar to ordinary rubbish, are those that are accumulated on the surface of our souls. These include foolish thoughts, feelings and deeds that a person commits, not because of evil intentions but through spiritual weakness and carelessness toward spiritual life. These daily sins are also damaging to the moral state of the person. While in relatively small numbers they do not deprive the soul of God’s grace, they nevertheless weaken its love for God and spawn feelings of indifference toward Christian living. This, in turn, inclines a person toward new and sometimes more serious transgressions. Just as a significant number of grains of sand can outweigh a brick, so can an accumulation of "minor" sins become more damaging than a single mortal sin. Especially destructive sins are those committed through habit, eg: swearing, smoking, over-drinking, indulging in mental, erotic fantasies, viewing pornographic films and photographs, self-defilement, judging your relatives, gossip etc...."

http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/guidance_repentant.htm