By MARIA SERMERSHEIM
What is good grief? Does such a thing exist? I have been thinking a lot about grief these days. It has so many aspects - grief for times gone by and for times of absence; grief for deaths of people and for deaths of hopes held deep in the heart. The bitterness can be intensified by grieving things long after the fact and by grieving many things at once. I have also been thinking about the virtue in bearing the grief of others and in allowing others to bear our grief with us.
Personally, I don’t like it; and I don’t want it. But in some spiritual reading lately, St. Catherine of Siena presented a challenging consolation - one that transforms my instinctive short-sightedness.
In Catherine’s Dialogues, Jesus tells her, “God, who is infinite, wishes for infinite love and infinite grief.” He specifies that God only wants grief insofar as it relates to mourning one’s sins or one’s neighbor’s sins, mourning the offense against God who deserves no offense but only gratitude and love. In fact, Jesus says that “inasmuch as [people] have infinite desire, that is, are joined to me by an affection of love, and therefore grieve when they offend me, or see me offended, their every pain, whether spiritual or corporeal, from wherever it may come, receives infinite merit, and satisfies for a guilt which deserved an infinite penalty…inasmuch as they possess the virtue of desire, and sustain their suffering with desire, and contrition, and infinite displeasure against their guilt, their pain is held worthy.”
My comfort, then, is that my grief is exacerbated by desire. Initially, the intensification of grief by desire was incredibly frustrating. I knew that things could and should be different, that the things causing grief were not the fullness of love; and I had further grief that things are not right in the world and that I do not see myself living the height of virtue as I grieve. The grief of grief multiplied my grief. But perhaps I can see, as Jesus taught St. Catherine to see, that my grief of grief is actually desire; it is a deep desire for the ultimate goodness of the Lord to be manifest in my own total and true communion with God and neighbor. This life is not near perfection; and my desire for this ultimate goodness that can only be attained in the life of the world to come chafes against the trials in this present evil age, as St. Paul called it.
Grief makes us feel the poverty of this life; the poverty of our own sufficiency; the poverty of placing our trust in people; the poverty of the satisfaction that this life can truly give. When we experience such want, it can be tempting to forsake the goodness of this world; to become bitter towards others and ourselves for all that we cannot give ourselves. But, in the surrender novena, Jesus promises, “I sow treasure troves of graces when you are in the deepest poverty." When we admit our deep poverty, as we must stand face-to-face with it through grief, we must not discard our deepest desire. Suffering sustained by desire makes space for Jesus to sow the treasure troves of graces. The Lord will make our barren hearts fruitful and flourishing. We simply must retain our desire in conjunction with our grief, the desire that drives us to invite him into our hearts, which he will heal, fill, and transform.