6th Thought – Sadness
It’s not easy to attain purity of heart. There’s always something trying to get in the way and ruin it. The early monks and nuns asked identified a certain pattern of eight negative thoughts, which to varying degrees afflict everyone.
This week the thought is sadness.
Even people on the path to true happiness/ purity of heart, even if they are not miserable people, can experience real sadness.
There are three angles from which we can approach this thought/demon:
- A doctor, who might diagnose a physical illness;
- A psychiatrist, who might diagnose depression;
- A spiritual guide, who might diagnose one of the Eight Thoughts.
It’s the third of these on which Abbot Christopher focuses, drawing on many years of Christian and monastic wisdom to offer us some spiritual guidance, especially from the 4th century teacher, John Cassian, who saw the effects of devastating depression and noticed how some of his monks became overwhelmed by a life-threatening ‘deadly despair’.
A quick disclaimer here: Abbot Christopher points out that the insights of this chapter are not meant to be a substitute for medical treatment of depression – he rightly says that anyone experiencing such affliction should seek professional as well as spiritual help.
This chapter is particularly relevant to anyone who has experienced ‘the blues’, or thinking ‘life’s not fair’, or ‘I’m feeling rubbish.’
This is not the kind of sadness that is caused by an alteration in the body’s chemistry, or which can be addressed by a bit of exercise or change of scene, but something more like ‘the interior experience of darkness.’
What causes sadness?
Although the cause isn’t always identifiable, loss seems to be the main thing which triggers all kinds of sadness.
Here are some examples:
- Losing your temper. The loss involved here is a loss of our balanced state of mind. The desert fathers and mothers were way ahead of their time in discovering that unacknowledged anger was a forerunner of sadness.
- Losing your money;
- Losing hold of something that your mind was set on;
- Losing your self-respect when an injury has been done to you.
You can see that what’s not being referred to here is the loss of a loved one – the emotion of grief in the face of great pain or death.
“Seeing sadness as a response to the loss of something can be the first step to overcoming it.” (p163). Similar to anger, as we learned last week, sadness is not something that is done to us; it’s our response to something, and therefore something that we can take responsibility for.
A very specific remedy is offered: hope.
In order to sustain that hope we have to consciously nurture and sustain it – it’s a matter of personal discipline.
And as John Cassian taught, it need to be hope placed in something that is not ‘subject to change and decay’.
That phrase, ‘change and decay’ appears in v2 of Abide with Me,
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
It’s a verse about the fact that even though all the world around us may fall apart, there is one who is constant and unchanging, steadfast and loving: the Lord Jesus who said (John 15:4),
abide in me as I also abide in you.
P164 is a really important page in Finding Happiness. Abbot Christopher recommends doing a ‘hope audit’ in our lives, and he provides a simple set of questions for this purpose:
- What gets you out of bed in the morning?
- What do you most dread losing?
- What absorbs your spare time?
The answers to these questions, says the Abbot, indicate where you place your hope.
Then, to see how our hopes might need to change, he poses three more questions:
- What aspects of your life do you neglect?
- How much time and energy do you give to spiritual exercises?
- After work, how much energy do you have to foster love and and relationships?
John Cassian advised people to meditate on death and resurrection. Two of today’s readings are a great resource for this:
- Revelation 21: a reading often used at funerals, depicting the world made new and people resurrected and reunited, gathered around God;
- Luke 24: the two disciples on the Emmaus road, sad and afraid because Jesus has been killed; about to discover that he is risen and with them, giving them a transforming and wonderful hope.
From here, the chapter looks at some particular situations that cause sadness, and how hope might counteract that sadness.
Losing a job
- Abbot Christopher describes (pp.165-169) some of the most common responses that people have to losing their job.
- Many of these responses have more to do with the ideas that person has in their mind, rather than the loss of the job itself.
- The way out of harmful sadness in this case is to realise that one’s hope has been placed in those unhelpful beliefs.
- One of the most disturbing losses, trapping us in a state where we see everything negatively.
- Abbot Christopher describes the huge volume of people who wrote to Worth Abbey after watching the Monastery programme in 2005, seeking advice for situations like this.
- He tells the story of one visitor who, despite a happy family and a successful career, felt overwhelmed with emotions he didn’t understand. Over time this man made some retreats at Worth abbey and realised what was lacking in his life: hope.
- The church at Worth became a physical space in which he was able to feel a sense of hope, which gradually rebuilt his sense of love, and life.
When sadness is good
There is another insight about sadness which might sound surprising: that sadness can be a good thing when it’s about sadness for our own faults.
Not sadness which is directed at other people’s faults – which only ends up unsettling us – but sadness at our own faults. This kind of sadness can prompt us to healthy remorse that leads to positive change in ourselves.
The Abbot is quick to clarify this point, because at face value it might sound like he’s promoting ‘old-fashioned catholic guilt’.
(So many people are damaged by a distorted kind of guilt.)
That’s not what he’s recommending.
But instead, the kind of guilt which is a response to a genuine wrongdoing, and which prompts you to make a positive change and growth.
When guilt leads to repentance, that’s something which leads to ‘true interior happiness where a sense of guilt does not burden us but sets us free for the future.’ (p176).
Back to the psalms
Before began this serious on Finding Happiness, we spent a couple of months looking at the Psalms, learning how helpful they were to our spiritual lives as prayers which express the whole range of human emotion and experience.
The psalm often give us words to say when we don’t know how to pray. With regards to sadness, Psalm 88 says it all.
That’s exactly what Abbot Christopher reminds us of at the end of this chapter – that the Psalms are helpful tools as we battle our various demons and thoughts to find true happiness.
I encourage you to dip into the Psalms this week…
Sermon by Rev James Pettit on Sunday 23rd October 2016