A Light on Sorrow/Understanding Sadness

Sorrow that is in congruity with reason is morally good’ – Fr Ripperger, ‘Introduction to the Science of Mental Health’

At moments in our lives sorrow and sadness can hit us hard.  Things seem pretty black. We feel like we can not go on and our zeal for life is completely drained from us.  This usually lasts a short time and as time passes, we get back to a place where colour comes back into life and we are able to face the battle again.  At times, sorrow is a perfectly natural and reasonable response to events or situations in our life, e.g. bereavement, relationship difficulties. It is indication that we have lost or are potentially losing someone or something in our life that we love, cherish or take delight in.  As long as these attachments to creatures and things are not inordinate and do not detract from or replace love of God, then this sorrow is reasonable.  This is shown by the fact that while some painful and poignant memories may remain and come into our mind from time to time, feelings of sorrow do not cripple us or lead us to neglect our spiritual and temporal duties.  Sorrow is a natural result of losing or potentially losing those things and people that we love, i.e. things and people we believe to be good or who we believe to be important for our ultimate happiness.  

The spouse of Christ who longs to become perfect must begin with her own self.  She must put aside, forget everything else, and enter into the secrecy of her own heart.  When she has done this, let her sift narrowly all her weaknesses, habits, affections, actions and sins.  She must weigh everything carefully, and make a thorough examination of past and present.  Should she discover even the least imperfection, let her weep in the bitterness of her heart.’ – St Bonaventure, ‘Holiness of Life’

Sorrow can also stem from us damaging or severing our relationship with God who is the ultimate good.  After having engaged in a sinful/immoral/unnatural act, sorrow, in the form of guilt, can come to the surface. This is particularly true of those with more sensitive consciences, i.e. those who have not numbed their consciences by persistent immoral lifestyles.  The sorrow that rises as a result of transgressing the natural and divine law is a wonderful gift as it can indicate to us that we are going astray and losing our connection with the ultimate source of goodness. ‘If one does not have sorrow, one’s intellect is not conforming to the truth and the will is not following right order, which is to sorrow for evil done.  In effect, by not sorrowing for one’s sin, one is not in contact with reality. Sin itself is a denial of reality or a stepping away from reality by the intellect and will, since one chooses something under the aspect of the good when, in reality, it is evil and harmful to oneself.’ – Fr Ripperger (‘Introduction to the Science of Mental Health’).  Feelings of sorrow can give us reason to stop, think and reflect about the road we are on.  It can help lead us back to God and the path to true happiness. It can call us to Christian perfection. 

Now, one must be careful to apply reason when examining why one is feeling sorrowful as unreasonable sorrow can be a way of dragging oneself further from God rather than lifting one back towards Him.  This can result in scrupulosity, despair and anxiety.  This is particularly dangerous amongst those individuals who have a melancholic temperament.  As people with this temperament tend to feel deeply, be very analytical and lean towards a pessimistic outlook on life, sorrow can have a particularly disabling effect on them.  However, sorrow, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing and, if it helps to guide us back to the truth then it is positive.  This is where people with a melancholic temperament are really beneficial to society as, oftentimes, they are the first to point out the reality of a truely terrible or dangerous situation – they can be likened to the solider on the lookout post letting his squadron know about the incoming enemy or the canary in the mine whose behaviour alerts miners of the danger of a gas leak before they are even aware of it themselves.  So, without glorifying sorrow and taking note of its dangers and entrapments, we can note that sorrow has its benefits when it leads us to the truth.  We can also note that those with a melancholic temperament can play a useful role in families, communities and society when they highlight the real dangers before anyone else. 

Modern day solutions to sorrow:

Sorrow has its function and its place, as noted above. However, it usually has more negative than positive or useful effects as St Francis de Sales points out (see note and link below).  Therefore, it is natural that society tries to find ways of treating and managing sorrow. There are all sorts of solutions proposed for treating the sorrow and sadness people experience today. Some of these are reasonable and can be beneficial, e.g. talking with a virtuous friend, distracting oneself briefly from one’s care with exercise/music/entertainment, changing one’s diet, finding a new job, developing a routine.  There is nothing wrong with these approaches*. At times, we might even need chemical help to settle our nerves and relax, e.g. a certain medication for a short period of time or a glass of wine/beer to take the edge off.  These approaches, however, should not be used excessively and they most definitely should not be used to distract or take us away from spiritual solutions. 

Men and women are not cured of all sorrow, of interior disappointment and the perverse will by legislation and classes and physical and social well-being. Othello may be a prince, but he is subject to jealousy and mad fits, and the longing of Psyche is not contented with mortal love.’ Fr M C D’Arcy, ‘Mirage and Truth’

In our current times where the majority of people, especially psychological professionals, have a misunderstanding of what a human being is and how the mind operates, the role of one’s conscience in sorrow is dismissed or there are attempts to explain it in more ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ ways.  For example, instead of psychologists seeing how offensive abortion is to God, how killing one’s baby goes against the natural instincts of a mother to protect her young, and acknowledging the severe impact this has on women’s psychological health, the Psychological Society of Ireland explains away the guilt or sorrow a mother experiences post-abortion as societal judgement and lack of acceptance of abortion, i.e. society has made women who kill their babies feel guilty or sorrowful rather than this being an inevitable consequence of an unnatural and barbaric act.  This approach causes untold damage to women and society in general.  As Fr D’Arcy notes above, no amount of change in legislation or modern sociological theories about well-being will cure the guilt these women experience as they are missing what they truly need for healing . The sorrow these women experience is an opportunity to reconcile themselves with God but instead our modern services encourage women to carry on in their destructive path.  Out of ignorance or out of fear of hurting feelings the truth is passed over.  This is a disastrous result as Bishop Fulton Sheen notes, ‘If there is anything morbid in the sinner’s responsible admission of a violent relationship with Divine Love, this is a jovial sanity compared with the real and terrible morbidity which comes to those who are sick and who refuse to admit their illness.’ (‘Peace of Soul’)

Another modern-day approach that is very popular today is the numbing of emotions.  This can be achieved through alcohol or drugs, particularly prescription drugs.  Now, as I said above, there may be times when biological or chemical interventions may be necessary to ‘take the edge off’ but if used, they should be used very carefully and prudently. (This is particularly true of prescription drugs today and I would recommend doing some research such as checking out the website, www.rxisk.org, or listening to talks by Prof Peter Gotzsche before deciding on whether psychotropic drugs are a good option for you). The virtue of prudence when making decisions about psychological remedies is essential today as those in power have drifted further and further away from an accurate understanding of human beings and the meaning of life.  While God and the remedies He offers for souls in distress are kicked out, e.g. Confession and penance, the devil and his minions offer their ‘compassionate’ and ‘progressive’ solutions to replace what they lambast as the ‘unscientific’ and ‘superstitious’ remedies of God.  These ‘advanced’ solutions are marketed very cunningly and deceitfully by pharmaceutical companies who are driven by profits and have become slaves to Mammon having failed to heed the warnings of St Paul, ‘For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows.’ (1 Tim 6:10).  These pharmacological solutions are then pushed on people in distress by medical professionals, who are, most likely, duped by the propaganda as well.  Most of these psychotropic drugs cause emotional numbing, are incredibly addictive, some cause brain shrinkage and the scientific evidence shows that they increase psychological issues (Note: I have also spoken about this in recent talks here and I have shown scientific evidence for the psychological benefits of Catholicism here).  Numbing emotions, creating dependency on drugs and shrinking people’s brains are not solutions to sorrow yet this is what is being cleverly and deceitfully offered, in the guise of science, to people today. 

Now I am glad: not because you were made sorrowful; but because you were made sorrowful unto penance. For you were made sorrowful according to God, that you might suffer damage by us in nothing. For the sorrow that is according to God worketh penance, steadfast unto salvation; but the sorrow of the world worketh death.’ (2 Cor 7: 9-10)

Now, it is clear that people are struggling with sorrow in our world today. People are looking for solutions, but today’s modern approaches are part of the problem not the solution.  These approaches are built on ‘the sorrow of the world’ and its false understandings of man and not on ‘the sorrow that is according to God’.  Instead of taking the risk of being deceived, drugged up or duped by modern psychological services today, let us go back to some salutary advice from the likes of St Francis de Sales.  It is far more beneficial to our sanity and, more importantly, our salvation, to listen to the wise advice of the saints, such as St Paul and St Francis de Sales, who recognised the reality of life, rather than listening to anything you will find in modern psychological or sociological ramblings that promise a smooth path to the Garden of Eden by trying to bypass and forget about the Hill of Calvary.

It is strange that many who call themselves followers of Christ are so unwilling to walk after the manner of His life and take His yoke upon them.  They are scandalised by suffering and invent alternative theories of Christianity to that which their Founder taught again and again.  They seem to be rationalising and not reasoning, to be converting what is a natural fear of the hard into a denial of its place in the Christian dispensation; and the result is that they see nettles everywhere and hate the rose because of the thorn.’ – Fr M C D’Arcy ‘Mirage and Truth

Human beings are complex, life is hard and there are many things that can trigger sorrow, but to try to take God and spiritual causes out of consideration only leads to absolute disaster. One needs to get back to common sense, (accurate) science and the Catholic Faith if one is going to figure out how to traverse this valley of tears and get back on the straight and narrow path. The truth, no matter how unpalatable it may initially seem, is necessary for a happy life and eternal happiness.  One may be tempted to reject the rose because of the thorns.  But once the rose is accepted and the truth is assented to, it is then charity and the love of Truth Himself that lifts and transforms hearts, minds and souls as Abbot Jean-Baptiste Chautard explains in his brilliant book, ‘The Soul of the Apostolate’, ‘Only a burning and unchangeable love is capable of filling a whole life with sunlight, for it is love that possesses the secret of gladdening the heart even in the midst of great sorrows and crushing fatigue.’ We must humble ourselves and check that we have a firm grasp of the truth.  We must not run from the truth but face it bravely.  We must then check our own hearts, see what resides there and pray for and cultivate the love of God/Truth in it so we can overcome the sorrows, which will inevitably come our way, and continue on the road to true happiness.  


Note: Here is a link to St Francis de Sales’ classic book, ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ – https://ccel.org/ccel/desales/devout_life/devout_life. He dedicates chapter 12 to ‘Sorrow/Spiritual Sadness’ and chapter 13 explains ‘The Role of Feelings in the Spiritual Life’.  I would highly recommend this and, especially, these two chapters to anyone or anyone you know experiencing sorrow.

* As long as these activities are not an occasion of sin, e.g. certain types of music, exercise and entertainment.

The Light Shineth in Darkness…

‘And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity’   (1 Corinthians 13: 13)

What is the most important factor that contributes to positive therapeutic outcomes? The type of therapy used?  The amount of qualifications that the therapist has?  The type of room where the therapy takes place?  The amount of time a person spends in therapy?  No, it is none of these.  The most important factor for predicting positive therapeutic outcomes is, what is called, the ‘therapeutic alliance’.  This is essentially the relationship that exists between the therapist and the person coming to see them. Numerous studies have shown that the therapeutic alliance is the most vital aspect of therapy.  But what is this therapeutic alliance and what gives it such power?

Many psychotherapists and counsellors use the phrase coined by the counsellor, Carl Rogers, ‘unconditional positive regard’, to describe what is deemed essential for positive outcomes in therapy.  Others speak of ‘genuine love’ or ‘genuine loving relationships’ as key to therapeutic success, e.g. psychiatrist and author of the book, ‘The Road Less Travelled’, Dr Scott Peck, and his followers. All recognize that charity and love play a central role in counselling and therapy. While many different therapies and therapists compete against each other in the marketplace to promote their particular type of therapy, there is nothing more powerful and effective than being helped and guided by someone who truly cares for you.  We know this from our own experiences.  When we are in trouble and the world seems to be crashing in on us, we naturally tend to look for help from those who are charitable, caring and kind.  As we struggle through this life, we all need help and a bit of genuine love from time to time.  The importance of the therapeutic alliance is also backed up by what the science tells us, with a comprehensive investigation concluding that ‘the quality of the client–therapist alliance is a reliable predictor of positive clinical outcome independent of the variety of psychotherapy approaches and outcome measures’ (Ardito & Rabellino, 2011). No matter what therapy is used, it will be useless without ‘genuine love’, ‘unconditional positive regard’, ‘therapeutic alliance’ (call it what you will) being at the heart of it.  St Paul expresses this deep truth beautifully: ‘If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.’  (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).  But how do we know if someone has charity in them? One piece of advice in making a decision about who to trust and open to is this:

It’s in the Eyes

The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be! (Matthew 6: 22-23)

Our Lord emphasises the importance of the eyes as ‘the light of the body’.  Our eyes are the windows to the soul and offer a glimpse at the divine spark within us.  In our modern society, sometimes we can become so disillusioned with the state of things that we fail to look for or fail to recognise the glimpses of goodness that can still be seen in others. This cynical attitude is exemplified by Bob Dylan in his song, ‘It’s Not Dark Yet (But It’s Getting There)’, where he sings about how he has almost given up completely on people, ‘I’ve been down on the bottom of the world full of lies, I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ in anyone’s eyes, Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear, It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there’. Sometimes all we see is anger or darkness or danger in someone else’s eyes.  This can be particular true if we have not received adequate care, love and attention from important figures in our own lives, e.g. our parents, or we are burnt out by our experiences of the world. Like Bob, we can stop even looking for the light in another’s eyes.  When we do meet someone whose eyes are shining (or ‘smiling’ as the famous song, ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ tells us), and we recognise this light, it can give us a lift and help us to get through the toughest periods in our lives.  We can see light in the world again through their eyes.  Through someone’s eyes we can often tell if they really care for or love us and if we can trust them.

Clever Imitations:

Before I lose myself in romantic notions about this life, I do want to give a note of caution. Don’t fall for cheap imitations of the therapeutic alliance. Don’t fall for the helping professionals who just nod their head and occasionally throw out a ‘that must be tough’ slogan and treat you like a commodity or a being without a unique soul.  Marketers, advertisers, government spin doctors and businesses know the psychological tricks to convince you that they are kinder and more compassionate than they seem – they are skilled at this, e.g. they have even helped to create the notion that abortion is ‘compassionate’.  Along with engaging your heart and senses in evaluating whether you see light and goodness in someone else, make sure to engage your mind as well. Without being cynical, be mindful in evaluating whether what certain people are selling is aligned with reality. Make sure that the people you decide to trust and open up to have a firm understanding of the reality of this life.  Check out the actual fruits of the professional’s labour and if they have really helped people overcome their distress. Through reading, studying, prayer and reflection, come to know what the words ‘compassion’ and ‘love’ actually mean and do not fall for distortions of the truth of these words.  While being humble, trust your common sense.  Keep before your mind and heart, memories of someone who you knew really loved you. Focus on the divine and supernatural images, words and ideas associated with Love. In doing so you store in your heart and mind the true understanding of compassion, love and charity.  You will then know them when you see them and it becomes less likely you will be duped by imitations, however clever they might appear. 

Keep Searching

Even when it’s getting dark all around you, keep searching for the shining and smiling eyes in the world, whether that be in the eyes of the professionals you meet, friends and family members you have, or the strangers you meet along this journey.  While it is tempting to give up while we struggle through this valley of tears, this Easter period shows us that the darkness cannot master the Light. Have courage and keep looking for those sparks of goodness and light in others.  Hopefully, in time, your eyes will shine and smile again too.  Then you can be a light in the world for someone else and add goodness and joy to this world, which, in turn, can help others along the straight and narrow path.  And as the song goes,  

When Irish eyes are smiling,
Sure, ’tis like the morn in Spring.
In the lilt of Irish laughter
You can hear the angels sing

Happy Easter!