Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Dietrich von Hildebrand on grief

I've blogged a passage from Dietrich von Hildebrand's The Devastated Vineyard not long ago; here's another one I thought worth sharing.

Many people are confused about how they should react to bereavement; some are even made to feel guilty about feeling natural grief. Hildebrand supplies a good corrective. From 'The Devastated Vineyard', pp130f 

It is a regrettable sophism to say (as it was sometimes said in sermons) that the death of a father or mother, husband or wife, or of a child, is no reason for sadness as long as they have died well, after receiving the last sacraments, as long as we can hope that they are with God. Of course the eternal happiness of one whom we truly love is the most important thing, but separation from the beloved, even if only for a time, remains a terrible cross. Whoever does not feel this cross, whoever just happily goes his way with the consolation that the beloved has found eternal happiness, is not directed to eternity in a special way--he is simply insensitive and does not want to be disturbed in the normal rhythm of his daily life. He is simply making a comfortable excuse when he emphasises that the eternal salvation of the other is the most important thing. He has forgotten that even Jesus Christ, the God-man, prayed in Gethsemane: 'Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.' He does not understand that a cross which has been imposed on us should be suffered under as a cross. Only then can we attain to the true consolation which lies in the perspective of eternity, to the true hope of eternal blessedness.    
We should simply read the magnificent sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux (no. 26 in his sermons on the Canticle of Canticles) in which he grieves over the death of his brother. Here we find first of all the lamentation, filled with deep grief, over the death of his beloved brother, and only then the ascent to the fact that death is the beginning of a life of eternal blessedness.   

It is always a disastrous mistake when we try to skip over certain phases instead of passing through them, when we violate the central value of dicretio. (I have spoken at length about this virtue in my book, 'Liturgy and Personality'.) When we do not pass through the necessary phases on our way to some end, phases which are objectively prescribed by the nature of things, and are willed by God, when we try to skip them, then we distort everything and do not really attain to our end; in fact, we falsify the end and render it mediocre.


  1. Interesting thoughts. As a bereaved father of a beautiful 7 year old daughter, I have often wondered if the pain I feel at her loss is a sign of the un-natural reality we experience by the separation which death forces on us. We all die, and yet we tend to 'Go not gently into that good night', we rage against death, especially the death of those we love.

    I would even draw a subtle line between the death of a beloved parent, and that of a child, which can seem to a parent brutal, cruel, and un-natural.

    The point being that though death is something that is inevitable for all of us, it doesn't seem something intrinsic to our nature, rather we bear inside us a seed of eternity, irreducible to the merely material (c.f. CCC 33). Could this be why we find bereavement so awful then? We are made for eternity? It could be a clue at least.

    Another point is the love. In a relationship such as parent-child, I think we can all recognise the flow of love between people, an echo of the perfect love shared by the persons of the Trinity: communion-in-love-without-rivalry. When someone we love dies, the flow of love between us and them does not, in my experience, diminish.

    So what of the pain? I note that there are at least three places in the Bible where it is noted that Jesus Christ cries:

    1. "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears... - Hebrews 5:7

    2. "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it..." - Luke 19:41

    3. "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. Where have you laid him? he asked. Come and see Lord, they replied. Jesus Wept." - John 11:33-35

    This brings to mind the words of the French poet and philosopher Paul Claudel:

    "Jesus did not come to explain suffering, nor to take it away. He came to fill it with his presence."

    Personally, I take extraordinary comfort from that, although I'm not sure I fully understand why.

  2. Jesus was also 'sorrowful, even to death' in the Garden of Gethsamane, at the prospect of his own suffering death, a point mentioned by Hildebrand.

    I too like that idea you quote at the end. As Hildebrand says, bereavement is a cross, and we experience it as a cross: and that means, in union with the suffering of Our Lord.