Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century theologian, saw his sister Macrina and was reminded of his brother, Basil. Basil died and Gregory broke out in grief upon seeing his sister. His sister Macrina, instead of offering her brother comfort like any sister would, rebuked her brother. In Gregory’s work On the Incarnation, she said, “It is not right to grieve for those who sleep, since we are told sorrow belongs to those who have no hope.” We can grieve over many things—but the ultimate process of grief comes through the grieving of a loved one. My father died almost four years ago of brain cancer. I’ve walked with my family as we’ve grieved holidays and birthdays. At every marker of time, he is noticeably missing. His memory connects my family in new and beautiful ways. My sister honors his memory by organizing a 5K to raise money for brain cancer. I honor his memory in small ways—telling stories about him and playing his favorite songs and movies. I can empathize with Gregory—when I see my uncle, who has begun to look much like him, my heart aches for my dad. How could something that feels so natural as grieving your brother or your dad, so human, be incorrect?
Seneca, a Roman stoic, operated under the cosmological construct of Fortuna, or fortune. According to Seneca, Fortuna, exercises power over humanity through gifts and disaster—the good and the bad stuff of life. We become so allured by fortune’s gifts and so overwhelmed by the disaster that it brings that it masters us. According to Seneca, we must become the masters of our own soul by first building a “wall of virtue.” Fortuna may take our career, and our bodies—but it cannot take our soul which is cultivated by the good works of virtue. Secondly, we can avoid the trap of Fortuna by constantly living in the present. Our past has passed and our future is uncertain and fragile. But the mastery of our own soul in the present, Fortuna cannot take away. Seneca believed that hope was as harmful to the soul as fear because both live in an uncertain future.
This sounds like sound advice. Things happen—it is the world we live in. We, as the British war-time poster proclaims, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It is what has been called a British “stiff upper lip” mentality. Talking with our British friends who lived through the London Blitz whose houses and businesses were blown to pieces during the air raids, they say, “You move on, it’s the only choice you have.” This type of resiliency is simply built into their culture. But detached grief also means detached joy—a deep bitterness and cynicism about life and people that seeps into your soul. This type of bitterness and cynicism detaches from the world for protection. But without vulnerability, CS Lewis writes, it is impossible for our hearts to love anything. He writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Depression withdraws from love through isolation. Relationships are fraught with disappointment and pain. It is exactly as CS Lewis describes—depression locks up your heart in a coffin of selfishness. Depression can only see the present because as Macrina informed us, “sorrow is for those who have no hope.” Macrina rebukes Gregory not because grief is wrong, but because he lives as if he has no hope. Depression lives as if we have no hope. We do not live in Seneca’s world governed by the unpredictable, uncertain Fortuna. But we, like Nyssa, “believe in a sovereign sway of God who wills the redemption and blessedness of all creation—a redemption that has already begun with Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. Hope, therefore, does not mean for Nyssa the self-deluded optimism that tempts one to resist one’s irresistible fate, as it does for Seneca. It is rather confidence firmly founded upon God’s sure and benevolent economy.” (J. Warren Smith, Passion and Paradise, p. 102)
Christian hope is founded upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. His resurrection means my resurrection. It means that the present pain is not forever. It means we look forward to a day where in the redemption of all things sorrow will become joy. The hymn “Farther Along” chorus sings, “Farther along we’ll know all about it, Farther along we’ll understand why. So cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine; we’ll understand this, all by and by.” Farther along we will know why pain happens. Father along, we anxiously await and sing, “please, Lord, come soon.”