A Sin Called Sadness

In the reading of Scripture, we are familiar with the exhortations against committing specific sins. Do not fornicate, do not kill, do not steal, do not cheat your neighbour, and so on. We are warned that to sin is to earn the fruit of sin, which is death.

What is less obvious are the exhortations that do not fit into any recognisable schema, most probably due to their isolated mentions in obscure parts of scripture.

Key among these more obscure exhortations is found in Psalm 98, in which the exhortation is to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”, or in Psalm 66 “shout for joy to the Lord”. Many may think this as an optional suggestion for exuberance, until one considers its converse, which is sadness. In the Wisdom of Sirach, more commonly known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus, we are warned against “Sadness” and “Sorrow”. More than a warning, we are given a chilling a reminder of what sadness can do. The Book of Ecclesiasticus presents us with a prescription and a warning that says “put sorrow away from you, for sorrow has killed many” (Sir 30:23).

The reader might sympathise with such an exhortation, arguably due to the familiarity with the phenomenon of literally dying from a broken heart. However, the ancient tradition of the Church does not confine the reading of this verse to a causal connection between emotion and medical outcomes.

As can be seen from a new book on the vices by Dr. Rebecca DeYoung, published by Brazos Press, early Church Fathers such as Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian have designated sadness as leading to spiritual death, so much so that sadness was classified as one of the capital sins. Even though Gregory the Great was to remove sadness from the list of deadly sins to make the more familiar list of seven, sadness nonetheless lurked behind the operation of many of the other deadly sins, in particular sloth.

Sadness was thus seen as more than just a pervasive and morose emotion. As a vice, it was also a predisposition that could prime us towards separation, not only from loved ones, but even from God Himself. This link has been given some recognition in the liturgical life of the Latin Church, especially on “Rorate Sunday” in Advent, during which a Gregorian hymn couples Isaiah’s familiar cry for the dew to drop from heaven and the clouds to rain the just (Isa 48:5) with a less familiar rhetorical question from God: Why art thou consumed with grief, for sorrow has estranged thee.

Part of the Christian moral life then calls for a vigilance against something that is incredibly deadly, yet also incredibly ingrained into the texture of everyday human experience. It is something that we must recognise, even articulate and express in lament. The Christian is also called to be vigilant against simulations of the antidote to sadness, which is the frenetic cheerfulness lacking in any foundation. Be that as it may, the Church does, to borrow from the words of Michael Hanby’s article on boredom, have a solemn duty to put a “resistance of joy”. It is a resistance that does not ignore the sadness in this world but also, in Hanby’s words “make a radical ontological affirmation, and yet this affirmation is…only intelligable if the world is created in the Father’s loving delight for the Son”. Such an affirmation then cannot be found in the inner cheerfulness of the human person, but in that person’s praise of God in the liturgy.

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  • Katie Baklinski

    Great reminder. This would be an overall attitude of sadness I assume, rather than moments of sorrow. Living as if the battle might be lost, rather than in the knowledge that it is already won? One of my favourite parts of the Mass is the Eucharistic prayer line “as we wait in joyful hope” (at least that was the old translation), and I try to repeat it when brought down by personal or world events.

  • Tom Sturch

    Matthew, I think there’s some wisdom in this but I’m having a hard time finding it in all the conditional statements. That’s all I need: one more item for my list of behavioral modifications. And you say this in the face of a culture that benefits from my sadness and promotes systems to insure it. I believe this is where poetry trumps the law and letters, where in the absurdity of existence the essence of God’s faithfulness can be very present. “Great is thy faithfulness,” for instance, is found in the laments of the weeping prophet.