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The Saints and Overcoming Grief

You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy…. I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:20, 22

This article is from Catholic Exchange

A talented painter once gave an unforgettable performance in front of an admiring audience. With rapid strokes of his brush, he quickly and skillfully painted a beautiful country scene, replete with green meadows, golden fields of grain, farm buildings in the distance, peaceful trees, and a friendly blue sky punctuated with soft, white clouds. As he stepped back from his easel, the audience burst into appreciative applause — only to be silenced by the art­ist, who announced, “The picture is not complete.”

He turned and began rapidly covering the canvas with dark, somber paints. The peaceful country scene was replaced with blotches of morose, unappealing colors, all seemingly thrown on the canvas in random disorder; only a patch of the blue sky and the peaceful countryside remained. “Now,” he asserted, “the pic­ture is finished, and it is perfect.” The stunned audience looked on in disbelief; no one understood what had just happened. Then the painter turned the canvas on its side, and the onlookers let out a collective gasp of amazement, for now there appeared before their eyes a stunningly beautiful, dark waterfall, cascading over moss-covered rocks and creating a rich symphony of color.

(This article is from Fr. Esper’s More Saintly Solutions. Click here to preview/order)

The artist intended his amazing and unexpected demonstration to be a commentary or reflection on the reality of sorrow: one beau­tiful scene of life was transformed into another, even as observers wrongly believed something wonderful was forever lost. The mean­ing of this story is simple: God is the Artist who created our lives, and who desires to make them into something permanent and glo­rious; and sorrow and loss are often His instruments in bringing about this change. From our limited perspective, we believe that the original picture is fine as it is, and that any change, especially a painful one, can only be for the worse. The Lord, however, sees and understands the possibilities of life and eternity far more com­pletely than we ever will, and if we allow it, He is able to use all the events and experiences of our lives — even the dark and somber ones — to bring about something of lasting and unequaled beauty.

Grief over any serious loss — especially the death of a loved one — is a very heavy cross to bear, and we’re certainly not ex­pected to see right away how the dark colors of our mourning can be transformed into the joyous hues of eternity. The Lord doesn’t ask that we understand, only that we trust. This, too, can be quite difficult. Even some of the saints found their grief to be nearly overwhelming, but they persevered in their faith and eventually found peace and even joy in their sorrow. This is a hope that Jesus offers to us as well.

St. Francis de Sales came from a large family, and although he was often somewhat melancholy, he experienced great happiness in spending time with those he loved. This was especially true in regard to his youngest sister, Jeanne, who was born three days before his Ordination to the priesthood. Hers was the first Bap­tism St. Francis performed, and he always had a special fondness for her, so it was a terrible blow when she died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of fifteen, while visiting the home of St. Jane Frances de Chantal and her family. Francis, by then a bishop, expressed his profound grief in these words: “I am nothing if not a man. My heart has been broken in a way that I could not have be­lieved possible.”

St. Jane, who understandably felt very guilty over the girl’s death (even though it was in no way her fault), had herself drunk deeply from the cup of sorrow some years earlier. Her beloved husband, Christophe, was shot by a friend in a hunting accident. He was carried home, but there was nothing the doctors could do for him, and after nine painful days, he died. During this no­vena of suffering, Christophe resigned himself to the will of God and freely forgave his friend. Jane, however, was unable to react in such a holy manner. In her desperation she bargained with God: “Take everything I have, my relatives, my belongings, my chil­dren, but leave me my husband!” This prayer, of course, was not answered, and it was many years before the future saint (under the influence of St. Francis de Sales) was able to forgive her husband’s hunting partner from her heart.

The grief St. Jane experienced made it possible for her years later to write this advice to her own daughter, who was herself grieving over the death of a husband: “My greatest wish is that you live like a true Christian widow, unpretentious in your dress and actions, and especially reserved in your relationships. . . . I know very well, darling, of course, that we can’t live in the world with­out enjoying some of its pleasures, but take my word for it, dearest, you won’t find any really lasting joys except in God, in living vir­tuously, in raising your children well, in looking after their affairs, and in managing your household. If you seek happiness elsewhere, you will experience much anguish, as I well know.”

Another saint well acquainted with grief and loss, one we would rightly call a “man of sorrows,” was Alphonsus Rodriguez. He was fourteen when he lost his father; when he was twenty-six, his wife died in childbirth. A few years later, his mother and his young son died, and shortly after this, his business failed. The grieving saint wrote, “I put myself in spirit before our crucified Lord, looking at Him full of sorrow, shedding His Blood and bear­ing great bodily hardships for me. As love is paid for in love, I must imitate Him, sharing in spirit all His sufferings. I must consider how much I owe Him and what He has done for me. Putting these sufferings between God and my soul, I must say, ‘What does it mat­ter, my God, that I should endure for Your love these small hard­ships? For You, Lord, endured so many great hardships for me.’ Amid the hardship and trial itself, I stimulate my heart with this exercise. Thus, I encourage myself to endure for love of the Lord, who is before me, until I make what is bitter sweet.”

This heroic act of resignation helped St. Alphonsus Rodriguez bear a very heavy cross of grief, although later in life, as a Jesuit lay brother, he still had much to suffer (including spiritual aridity, vio­lent temptations, and even demonic assaults).

A somewhat similar approach was used by St. Teresa of Avila, who was only thirteen when her mother died. Teresa consoled herself by thinking each night of our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemani. In her grief, she also turned to the Virgin Mary. She later wrote, “When I began to realize what I had lost, I went in my distress to an image of our Lady and with many tears besought her to be mother to me. Although I did this in my simplicity, I believe it was of some avail to me; for whenever I have commended myself to this sovereign Virgin, I have been conscious of her aid; and eventually she brought me back to myself.”

Sorrow is often unavoidable in this life, but our response of faith and hope in eternal life can bring us a measure of peace. God knows everything we feel; no tear is unnoticed, and none need be wasted, for as St. Pio once said to a grieving person, “Your tears were collected by the angels and were placed in a gold chalice, and you will find them when you present yourself before God.”

Nothing of value is permanently lost — especially not our loved ones, and the love we share with them — if we have faith in God. As St. Paulinus of Nola writes, “Granted our love may weep for a time, but our faith must ever rejoice. We should long for those who have been sent before us, but we should not lose hope of gaining them back.”

Our Christian Faith teaches us that the separations from our loved ones caused by death are temporary; we’re also taught that humbly bearing our burdens — including the burden of grief — is a valuable and even heroic way of growing in God’s grace. As St. Teresa of Avila notes, “We always find that those who walked clos­est to Christ, our Lord, were those who had to bear the greatest trials.” Our suffering and grief can lead us to everlasting joy, for as St. John Vianney tells us, “You must accept your cross; if you carry it courageously, it will carry you to Heaven.”

As much as we’d like to when we’re grieving, we cannot undo the past, but the saints assure us that turning to the Lord in our sorrows and placing our hopes in Him can give us strength here and now, and help prepare us for a future of new life and joy.

For Further Reflection

“It is a loving act to show sadness when our dear ones are torn from us, but it is a holy act to be joyful through hope and trust in the promises of God. . . . Thankful joy is more acceptable to God than long and querulous grief.” — St. Paulinus of Nola

“No picture can be drawn with only the brightest colors, nor har­mony created only from treble notes. . . . Our whole life is tem­pered between sweet and sour, and we must look for a mixture of both.” — Bl. Robert Southwell

“The more we are afflicted in this world, the greater is our assur­ance in the next; the more we sorrow in the present, the greater will be our joy in the future.” — St. Isidore of Seville

Something You Might Try
  • Elizabeth of the Trinity advises, “During painful times, when you feel a terrible void, think how God is enlarging the ca­pacity of your soul so that it can receive Him — making it, as it were, infinite as He is infinite. Look upon each pain as a love-token coming directly from God in order to unite you to Him.” We needn’t believe that God causes our grief, but we can be sure that, if we allow it, He uses our sorrow, thereby giving us a greater capacity for the future happiness that awaits us. The Lord doesn’t ask that you stop grieving; He asks only that you trust in Him and believe that the day will come when you will once again rejoice.

  • When her husband died after a long illness, leaving her with five young children, a grieving St. Elizabeth Ann Seton prayed, “I know that these contradictory events are permitted by Your wis­dom, which solely is light. We are in darkness and must be thank­ful that our knowledge is not wanted to perfect Your work.” As your grief begins to pass, look for opportunities to allow God’s light to shine in your life. Consider joining a support group — people with whom you can share tears and laughter. Look for an organization or group (perhaps in your parish) that needs volun­teers; activities of this sort can be a way of finding new meaning and making new friends. Cultivate a deeper relationship with Jesus and with Mary, who knew what it was to grieve, and to remain faithful in spite of grief. Being open to God’s grace in these ways can slowly begin to replace darkness and mourning with light and peace.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s More Saintly Solutions, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

By Fr. Joseph M. Esper

Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.

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