Bright Sadness

The beautiful expression, “bright sadness,” came back to me with special poignancy during Holy Week this year. In Greek the compound noun is charmolypê, variously translated “bitter joy,” “joyful mourning,” or “affliction that leads to joy.” It expresses what the Fathers of the Church call an “antinomy,” a truth that defies normal logic. The word is an oxymoron of sorts, which describes a paradoxical spiritual state characterized by a profound mingling of joy and grief. St. John of Sinai formulates the idea in the seventh step of his Ladder of Divine Ascent, where he speaks of it as “the blessed joy-grief of holy compunction.”

In his classic work, Great Lent, Fr Alexander Schmemann describes “Sad brightness” as “the sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home.” It is sadness that permeates the Lenten season, with its long, fatiguing, magnificent liturgical services and its constant call to repentance. Yet it is a sadness leavened by a deep joy that only tears can adequately express. Tears of longing for the glory and peace to come, for the “recovered home” where the Father embraces each of us, His prodigal children, with a boundless depth of forgiving love.

That bright sadness opens for me a vital sensitivity that I otherwise rarely experience. This Lent and Holy Week, it enabled me to see for the first time the faces of people I have known, in some cases for years, yet without really seeing them or knowing them very well at all. It happened especially with members of our parish community, many of whom have lived through degrees of hardship and suffering most of us can barely imagine: new immigrants from Russia, Ukraine or Romania, for example, whose faith remained strong despite constant threats, persecution and material deprivation. Or a young couple who just lost their first child four months into the pregnancy; or a recent convert who is attempting to recover from a divorce and the loss of everything he held dear, including his children.

There are many others in the parish, too, who tend to keep to themselves their personal stress and suffering. Yet their eyes and their “body language” betray the weight of the burdens they carry. Some are caring at home for elderly parents who are afflicted with dementia or alcoholism. Others are struggling to offer love, support and guidance to disruptive or promiscuous adolescents; or depriving themselves in order to feed and clothe their children after their business collapsed or they fell victim to “downsizing.”

Multitudes of different stories, yet with one common theme: they long ago placed their trust and their hope in Christ, the source and end of their deepest longing, and in these past few days they gathered together to celebrate their faith and their hope at the Feast of feasts, Holy Pascha.

What produced a bright sadness for me this year was not my feeble attempts at fasting or my less than enthusiastic efforts toward repentance. It wasn’t even so much the liturgical celebrations, as splendid and moving as they were, and always are. It was, rather, seeing certain faces for the first time. These were faces I had looked at, or spoken to, or shared coffee hour with any number of times. But they had usually seemed rather at a distance: interesting, intelligent, amusing, often warm and gracious; but still people whom I hardly knew.

Somehow, by God’s grace, I was able during this past Holy Week to see in those faces new depths of personal joy and suffering, of hope and selfless attentiveness to others, as well as of spiritual struggle and fervent commitment to Christ—depths I can’t find in myself, but that reveal themselves so clearly through the strength and honest simplicity of the witness these people offer to me and to others around them.

This implies that the grief-filled joy of the Lenten season is not merely an individual feeling. It is a profoundly ecclesial experience, one I can know in its painful yet glorious fullness only insofar as I share it with other people. Through this experience—perhaps more than through any other, apart from Eucharistic communion itself—we find ourselves joined, in compunction and longing, with all those who make up the universal Body of Christ.

Bright sadness may be the most powerful and important experience we can know. It brings to our mind and heart, in the most direct and personal way, the ultimate purpose of our life and the object or end of our most passionate desire. It reminds us of who we are, as beloved children of God, created in His image and invited to glorify and enjoy Him forever.

That conflicted emotion of bright sadness is a blessed gift, bestowed by the God who loves us with a “love without limit.” It comes to us through our ascetic struggle during the Lenten season, as it does through the solemn beauty of the Church’s liturgical services.

But it can come to us as well when we observe it in the people around us: people with whom and for whom we pray, people who in many cases pray for us without our being aware of it. We find that bright sadness in communion with them, in hearing their stories, in sharing their hopes, fears and longings. We find it through being attentive to the beauty and truth of their life and their unique presence.

We find it once we find them, possibly for the first time: not merely as parishioners, nor even as friends, but as brothers and sisters, united forever in the eternal communion of saints. Here and now, we share their pains, their struggles and their delights. That bright sadness, though, tells us that one day we will also share with them, in intimate communion, a glory and joy that know no mourning, no grief, no sorrow nor sighing, but only life everlasting.

[1] Tr. By Archimandrite Lazarus Moore (Faber & Faber, Ltd., reprinted by Eastern Orthodox Books, Willits, CA, 1973), p. 113.

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969, p. 36.