Here is the “casual video summary” of the sermon Fr. Justin Patterson gave on the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder on Grief and Bright Sadness.
Text of the Sermon offered on the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder
+4th Sunday of Great Lent 2020 / 3rd Sunday of Coronavirus+
Let me be very honest. (and I’ve been compelled to tell people who ask me “how I’m doing…”) I’m not well at all. Not at all. And I don’t mean the Coronavirus; but the realization that the very thing I would ask you to do–my dear people people–(in this instance)–is the very thing I cannot ask you to do! …Tons of sadness…. 4th Sunday in Lent… 3rd Sunday of the Coronavirus
- shock in the first weekend (even as I understood with my head Vladyka’s logic in asking people to stay away! Concern to bring down number of deaths–totally Christian goal!) Shock…
- anger: how could we be losing Lent as we know it? How could people be asked not to come to church?
- For myself, I was able to do some pleading with Vladyka to allow our catechumens to be baptized, which he blessed… [receiving catechumens–a joy! But still with empty church…]
- Depression… Multifaceted depression I’m observing all around: My own Depression. Depression in the face of the isolation. Depression in feeling cut off from the Church. Depression in face of not knowing what is to come. Numbness with some people. The sinking knowledge that our current reality–a painful social isolation–is both something we really need to take up in order to save lives in this crisis and also something that will not end next week or even the week after. Indeed, as our council met by zoom call on Friday night, the elephant in the (figurative) room for us was the slow-dawning realization that Holy Week and Pascha cannot–barring a miracle–be normal in any sense. Even as my mind accepts the actions that our government and our dioceses across the nation have taken, my heart has been mired at times in depression and what I might call an ungodly sorrow.
It was somewhat helpful when I read an article that reninded me what I should have already known: part of what we are all going through, quite simply, is a natural journey through grief.
Many of you might be familiar with what science tells us are the 5 stages of grief (Kubler -Ross “5 stages of grief”)
- Denial (Shock!)
- Acceptance (Finding Meaning)
I would submit to you that we all are being challenged spiritually at this time to work through all of these stages of grief–denial/shock, anger, bargaining, and depression–and to arrive at acceptance of what is. (We get time to do this….) Whether or not we understand the science; whether or not we accept that the course taken by our government in church is best of all possible ones; whether or not we feel good about what has happened in every corner of this Commonwealth, this nation, and even this world: our challenge in the days to come is to work through these stages and to arrive at a kind of acceptance of what reality–for now–is. This is precisely the pattern we see in the book of Job. Job loses so much. He is distraught. He is poorly comforted by his friends. He’s a total mess. Clarity only comes when he accepts where he is: sitting in the ashes and wearing the sackcloth with sores all over his body, mourning the loss of everything he ever loved. …As your priest, I challenge each of you–each of us–to honestly journey through these stages of grief and to accept (in due time) where we are–not just for the good of parish, but for our own personal spiritual health–so that we might actually grow in this season rather than stew and stagnate and collapse inward. Let us explore our inner life, my brothers and sisters–but let’s not collapse inwardly and lose our hope, our birthright, our inheritance!
I would like to suggest this morning that–as we consider the real grief we are experiencing–the wondrous saint that the Church puts before us on this particular Sunday offers us words that might transform this grief into something rather glorious. St. John Clmacus–of the Ladder–was called this name because of his magisterial book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, in which he outlines the spiritual life in 30 rungs–or steps–leading us closer and closer to Christ and his Kingdom. One of the steps that has been particularly associated with Great Lent in the Orthodox Church–and which fits the times we are in so well–is Step 7. St. John titles this step “On Charmolype.” This title could be translated into English as “On Sadness” or “On Mourning.” Orthodox Christians might prefer to translate charmolype it as “Bright Sadness.” It could also be rendered, “Affliction that Leads to Joy!” It is the sad joy of longing for something beloved, yet somehow just out of reach. It is tears of love for something good and holy that I am only able to partake of in part. Words that come to mind are Exile. Promise. Return. Hope. Narratives that come to mind might be “The Prodigal remembering the father” or “The Jews in Babylon longing for Jerusalem.” God is there in the midst of such bright sadness–such “affliction that leads to joy!”
Our challenge in these unusual days we are in, my brothers and sisters, is to enter boldly and faithfully into the Bright Sadness of Lent. Maybe we already accept that this Lent–more than others–will be a time of bright sadness and affliction. (It’s Lent after all!) I think what’s much harder for us right now is to consider that Holy Week and Pascha themselves will bear an unusual degree of Bright Sadness for us. Most of us aren’t used to Bright Sadness and Pascha being mingled together. For most of our adults and children both–no time is as joyous as Pascha. The hymns! The services! The exuberance! The togetherness (which for some is actually quite hard, btw…!)
But St. John of the Ladder encourages his reader to embrace Bright Sadness in this way: “ True compunction is pain of soul without distraction… It stands in wait for God alone who brings comfort, like cool water… As I ponder the true nature of compunction,” St. John says, “I find myself amazed by the way in which inward joy and gladness mingle with what we call mourning and grief, like honey in the honeycomb. There must be a lesson here, and it surely is that compunction is properly a gift from God, so that there is a real pleasure in the soul, since God brings consolation to those who in their hearts are repentant.”
May we each work through our personal griefs. May we work through our communal griefs. May we find Bright Sadness in our journey today. May the real sadness we feel be mingled with joy, and may our faith grow even deeper. I leave you with my own paraphrase of a quote from Romanian Confessor Fr. George Calciu (making its rounds on the internet): “Christ did not come to take away all sadness in this life or to explain it away. He came to take it up and fill it with himself!” May our sadness in due time be filled with Christ and may we find the brightness of him even in our tears in this season. Amen.