Bright Sadness

by Father Andrew Morbey


The American poet and Orthodox convert, Scott Cairns, writes in a chapter of God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter:

.... at first, I was surely among the crew that Father Alexander Schmemann acknowledges when he writes (in his amazing and very helpful book, Great Lent), “For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions…. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is ‘something else’ in Lent — something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning.”

Father Schmemann goes on to explain that this “something else” is another disposition altogether. He characterizes it as an “atmosphere,” a “climate,” and “a state of mind, soul, and spirit.” In my own experience — which, as I say, required some years of practice before I so much as noticed — Lent can become an incentive and a powerful means by which we can enter the kingdom of God, even as we abide here on earth.

This disposition is the harmolype — the bright-sadness — of which the fathers and the mothers speak. Even in the dryness of our desert journey, we are offered a sustaining taste of the sweet, the living waters. Even amid the gloom, we apprehend a glimmer of the light.

This bright sadness permeates much of the wonderful poetry of the Lenten Triodion. These hymns fill our liturgical services with a sadness that is at once bitter, as we consider the wretched state we find ourselves in, and yet leavened with joy, the bright promise of God’s presence and forgiveness. Bright sadness is connected with tender-heartedness, that is, compassion, a compassionate heart, from out of which a loving gaze embraces the suffering of others. What begins as something inward, and deeply personal — being touched by the poetry and melodies of bright sadness — is meant to be a source or well-spring of empathy, of mercy and forgiveness, of loving acts.

Father John Breck wrote in a meditation many years ago:

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.

The elder Paisios once said that for love to blossom in the heart, we must pray with pain of heart. In explaining this he noted that when we hurt some part of our body — our hand, for example — all our attention and energy focuses on where we hurt. So too it is a hurting and broken heart that focuses our spiritual attention. When asked what can we do if, in fact, we are not suffering and our heart is not hurting, the elder replied: “We should make the other’s pain our own! We must love the other, must hurt for him, so that we can pray for him. We must come out little by little from our own self and begin to love, to hurt for other people as well, for our family first then for the large family of Adam, of God.”

May our attention to the bright sadness of Lent bring us to the joy of the Resurrection! On Monday of the first week of the Fast, at Matins we sing:

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life.

Father Andrew Morbey is Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, MN.