Kinds of Sorrow, One Helpful, One Harmful
The desert has always been a place where people sought solitude. It is also a place of vulnerability if you lack the resources to withstand its rigors. In the third century of this era, people began to leave the cities of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent and find their way into the desert for solitude, to lead a life grounded in asceticism. Many of these people became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers; the first one of note was St. Anthony of the Desert (after whom our community is named), who lived over a century from 250-356, and whose day for commemoration is the 17th of January. In his twenties, Anthony went into the Egyptian desert known as the Thebaid, that became in time a flourishing community of monastics. I have always found a crisp, uncomplicated, and sometimes breathtakingly oblique wisdom to flow from the collected sayings of these monastics.
Amma (Mother) Syncletica was one of the desert monastics who lived almost contemporarily with Anthony. A woman from Alexandria, Egypt, from a wealthy background, Syncletica sought out the solitude of the desert as a way to seek God. On one occasion, she said to her community, “There are two kinds of sorrow. One is helpful; the other harmful. Sorrow is helpful when we weep for our sins, and for the ignorance of others. This sorrow will not allow us to become complacent, but instead prods us on toward true goodness. Our spiritual enemy sends sorrow that produces lethargy. This is harmful sorrow, and we need to drive it away with prayers and psalms.”
I think that, even without being “religious,” you can see the wisdom in Amma’s words. Maybe you can understand it in terms of “guilt feelings,” which are different from actually being guilty for some harmful act. Guilt feelings are paralyzing, numbing, and generally useless; they do not empower us to action. Rather they enervate us – Amma’s “sorrow that produces lethargy.” One can take a skewed solace in feeling guilty, but the feeling does not lead to any action. Actions bring us out of the lethargy into behavior that will overcome the genuine issues we face in becoming human.
Bowie Hayden was a local civil rights leader in Pittsburgh in the sixties. Bowie was capable of great impassioned oratory in denouncing the entrenched racism of the city in those days. I remember him saying something like this to us clergy who were seeking ways to confront the issues, beginning with ourselves: “I don’t say this stuff to make you feel guilty. You are guilty. Now what are you going to do about it?” I suspect that Bowie Hayden and Amma Syncletica could have found common ground.
Amma Syncletica’s “proper sorrow” impels us to action. We assess ourselves and choose to seek personal change. This sort of sorrow moves us to improve the common good, beginning with ourselves. This is the sorrow that “will not allow us to become complacent” in Amma’s words.
Numerous social problems and issues confront us in our time. Many of them are hoary with age by now. We’ve seen it all before: the clash between people of different colors, races, ethnic backgrounds. Some of us are old enough (and were foolish enough) to think we had solved the problems thirty or forty years ago. But they are entrenched and it behooves us all, particularly in the spirit of Dr King and other leaders who have gone before us, to seek change beginning with ourselves. We dare not become complacent. We need to embrace the right kind of sorrow.