Sorrow and Sadness

In Tolkien’s Silmarilion, he describes one of the Valar, Nienna:

[S]he dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. So great was her sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. Her halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos, which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world.

(The Silmarillion, Chapter 2, “Valaquenta”)


Sorrow and Sadness

The words

The word “Sorrow” implies a depth and length of darkness that isn’t necessarily true of “sadness”. Sorrow is universal. For example, sorrow comes when we learn a truth about the way the world is, something that will never change. Something about the nature of evil that we will spend our lives coming to grips with.

“Sadness” is more vague; the word can cover pretty much any emotional darkness. Sadness can be said of someone who has spilled something:

I know you shouldn’t cry over spilled tea, but

Spilled tea.gif

~Uncle Iroh

But when used distinctly from sorrow, it is a comparatively short-term darkness, something that we don’t anticipate will last forever. Usually, we can overcome sadness by fixing a problem, changing our attitude, or just letting go. It is something particular in life right here, right now.

Turning sorrow to wisdom

Both Sorrow and Sadness have a place in the spiritual life. Sorrow can be offered up to our Lord, particularly in connection with his own Agony in the Garden. Whatever caused the sorrow is a truth, one that is good to know, but will probably not change for the better until heaven. In this way, sorrow is often mixed with intense longing, longing for a better time and a better place. This is what I think of when I read Psalm 42:

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, the living God.
When can I enter and see the face of God?

My tears have been my bread day and night,
as they ask me every day, “Where is your God?”
Those times I recall
as I pour out my soul,
When I would cross over to the shrine of the Mighty One,
to the house of God,
Amid loud cries of thanksgiving,
with the multitude keeping festival.

Why are you downcast, my soul;
why do you groan within me?
Wait for God, for I shall again praise him,
my savior and my God.
My soul is downcast within me;
therefore I remember you
From the land of the Jordan and Hermon,
from Mount Mizar,
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your torrents,
and all your waves and breakers
sweep over me.

By day may the Lord send his mercy,
and by night may his righteousness be with me!
I will pray to the God of my life,
I will say to God, my rock:
“Why do you forget me?
Why must I go about mourning
with the enemy oppressing me?”
It shatters my bones, when my adversaries reproach me,
when they say to me every day: “Where is your God?”

Why are you downcast, my soul,
why do you groan within me?
Wait for God, for I shall again praise him,
my savior and my God.

It’s a spiritual sadness and longing and waiting that can’t and shouldn’t be forced from our minds. It is a constant reminder of God, that we are not with Him, that things aren’t perfect.

In these times, Heaven is far and near at once. Sorrow is our way of comprehending that mystery. It doesn’t stop praise, it doesn’t stop joy (as long as joy isn’t the same as happiness–a question for another time). But it is truly linked with downcast feelings. To force it away would not allow for the complications of joy.

Endurance in hope

Sadness, although it is usually for a shorter period of time, can pierce more deeply. When dealing with sadness as opposed to sorrow, something particular disturbs us. It demands to be understood. It’s what we feel about a particular misfortune, such as losing a house, death, a terrible accident, or a misunderstanding between loved ones.

All these are particular things we live through and can even be grateful for. We can be inspired when someone looks past their own sadness and finds something to be grateful for. We can work past our tears over death if there is hope in the afterlife. We can find good in suffering, and even hope that something better will come out of it. When we confront misunderstanding and try to work it out, we can come to a wonderful growth in the relationship.

So sadness in the spiritual life is not supposed to stay with us to the end, as sorrow does. Instead, it is an opportunity to fix something. An opportunity to ask God, “What are You doing for me right now? What good are You working towards?” If we keep faith during those times, that is when we experience the most intense spiritual growth.

8 thoughts on “Sorrow and Sadness

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