Grief as Spiritual Purification and Renewal


I have delayed writing to you, for I thought that my words could do little to mitigate the great sorrow which they tell me you are suffering. It seemed to me that I could help you better by interceding on your behalf with the God of all consolation, than by anything I could say. However, I am strongly urged to send you a letter, and as it is so much desired and our Lord is able to fulfill His purposes even by such means as this, I must not fail to com­ply with the request. God grant that my words may bring to your heart the comfort I wish it.

It is our Lord’s will that you should taste of the sorrows of this vale of tears, and not of the milder but of the most bitter kind. May His name be ever blessed, His judgments adored, and His will fulfilled, for the creature owes its Creator reverence and subjection in all things, be they pleasant or painful. To test our obedience, and to teach us what great things we are bound to do and to suffer for so great a Master, God is wont to deprive us of what is as dear to us as the light of our eyes.

Abraham had a strong affection for his son Isaac, and that was the point on which the Almighty tried him. Job fondly loved his seven sons, and God

This article is from a letter collected in Finding Confidence in Times of Trial: The Letters of St. John of Avila. Click image to preview other chapters.

took them from him in one day. In this manner He treats all those who are dear to Him, that they may testify their love for Him, while He bestows great graces on them by this means.

I know that human nature cannot understand this. It thinks only of the grief and the loss, and cares for nothing else. But if God dwells in us, we must restrain our feelings and make them subservient to reason and to His will. Whatever our suffering may be, we must not let it overwhelm us. Remember our Lord’s anguish, which wrung from Him a sweat of blood and made Him cry out: “Father, not my will but thine be done.” If we would be known as His disciples, we must say the same, for as His servants on earth, and His companions in Heaven, He will have none but those who take up their cross and follow Him, as sheep do their shepherd, even if the path leads to death.

Tell me, what right have we to complain of our trials, for they enable us to rid ourselves of our sins and make us like to the Son of God? It would be monstrous for slaves to refuse to obey a law their master kept, or for an adopted son to rebel against what the true son bore. Who was ever more beloved by the eternal Father than His only-begotten Son? Yet who was ever afflicted with so many sufferings as He? He was the “Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Count the drops of water in the ocean, and then you may number His afflictions. As the Son of God endured such anguish, being sorrowful even unto death, ought we to pass our lives without tasting one drop of the vinegar and gall with Him? How ashamed should we feel at seeking to share His joys, but leaving Him alone in His agony!

Let none deceive themselves, but let them feel assured that, as the King of Heaven entered His kingdom through tribulations, we must reach it by the same path. There is but one way — “Christ, and Christ crucified.” If we seek a different road, we shall not find it. We should lose ourselves by any other path, and find that, however hard the sufferings of this world may be, those in the next world are far worse.

Oh! blindness of the sons of Adam, who think nothing of the future as long as they can enjoy the present; who care not for what profits them, but only for what pleases them, and subordi­nate their reason to their passions. They weep when they ought to be glad, and rejoice when they have cause to mourn. Earthly happiness, like smoke, gradually fades away until it is no more seen. The years we pass here are but as a brief dream, from which we awake to find that it has all been an illusion. When sorrow comes to us, however light it may be, we forget our past joys, and the remembrance of them is only grief to us.

If this world is so treacherous a delusion, why not seek the other? Day by day we see our life slipping from us; let us strive for that which will bring us eternal happiness. If, in the past, prosper­ity has often made us think that we could find happiness here, may our eyes be anointed with the gall of suffering, so as to give us light to see the misery of this world, which is not our own coun­try, but a land of wretched exile. Let us raise our hearts, that our conversation may be in Heaven.

Our Lord has sent you this trial to make you cling closer to Him, since you have less on earth for which to care. Do not fancy that He takes pleasure in your pain, for He is merciful and feels a tender pity for your tears. He has embittered your cup with this drop of wormwood so that, as all human consolation is taken from you, your heart may rest on Him alone. God has deprived you of one happiness only to give you another in its place, as is His wont: He has taken your husband from you, that He Himself may fill his place, for He is called the “Father of the forsaken.”

Your widowhood will bring with it many trials, and you will often miss your husband’s care; many of your friends will show you but little kindness or fidelity, and some will even prove ungrateful. When this is so, God wishes you to have recourse to Him and to make Him the confidant of all your trouble. Open your soul to Him as your true Father. If you call on Him with all your heart and trust yourself in His hands, you will find Him a sure refuge in all your difficulties, and a guide on your way. Without knowing how, you will often find that your affairs have succeeded beyond your highest expectations. Experience will show you how true a friend the Almighty is to those in tribulation; how He dwells with them and provides for them. If, sometimes, He does not grant all you desire, it will be to give you something that is better for you; this is how the heavenly Physician treats the sick who go to Him wishing to be cured, rather than to taste pleasant medicines. Do not withdraw yourself from His hands, however painful His remedies may be. Ask Him not to do your will in what He does, but to do His own.

Let your weapons be prayers and tears — not useless tears for what our Lord has taken from you, but life-giving tears, which may gain pardon for your husband’s soul and salvation for your own. For what purpose, dear Lady, does the unmeasured grief serve to which they tell me you yield, except to add sin to sorrow? For you know that as we should not indulge in foolish mirth, nei­ther must we indulge in excessive grief; but both in the one and the other we must be obedient to God’s holy law.

Why do you complain? Why, I ask, do you complain? Either you are a sinner, and this affliction is to cleanse your soul, or you are righteous, and must be tried, that you may win your crown. Whichever you be, it is right that you should render heartfelt thanks to your Creator, that you should be resolute in loving the end to be gained by your sufferings, nauseous as the medicine may be.

This is what the Holy Scriptures mean when they relate how Esther kissed the top of King Assuerus’s rod. Let not the years pass in insatiate sorrow, but lift up your heart to our Lord, and pre­pare yourself for that passage from life which you have seen others take before. You have already yielded enough to nature; dry your eyes, and spend not the time that was given you to gain eternal life in mourning over death. Remember how our Lord drove from the house those who were mourning the death of a young maiden, saying: “She is not dead, but sleepeth” — in peaceful rest; so does your husband, for he both lived and died a true servant of Christ. Why should you be so grieved because God has taken the man you loved from this unhappy world into the place of salvation?

If it bring you trials, accept them willingly, that your spouse may rest in peace. If his absence afflicts you, take comfort by the thought that you will soon rejoin him, for the days of this life are brief, and it is but of little consequence which of us dies first. It is well to believe that our Lord took him because he was ready for death, and that you have been left here that you may prepare yourself for it. You served God earnestly during your married life; continue to do so now that you live in the state of widowhood; accept its special trials with patience, so that if you gained thirty-fold before, you may now earn sixty-fold. Thus, although your life may not be a very happy one, it will greatly profit your soul, for by it you will purge away your sins, you will imitate Christ on the Cross, and you will hold the certain hope of gaining His eternal kingdom.

To this end, with tears and prayers you must beg our Lord for His grace; you must read books of devotion and receive the Celes­tial Bread of the most Blessed Sacrament. Raise up your dejected heart and take courage to go on your way; you have a long road to traverse before you can reach Heaven, and you will not arrive there without suffering more afflictions still. The gem you desire to win is of inestimable value, and no price can be too great to purchase it. God never costs too dear, however much we pay for Him. Rejoice in the hope of possessing Him, for He is one day to be yours. Do not murmur at your troubles, but say: “I look for so great a good to come that I do not feel my present misery.” I pray and hope that our Lord Jesus Christ may accomplish all this in your soul.

Editor’s note: This article is from a letter that was published in St. John of Avila’s Finding Confidence in Times of Trialwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press.

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St. John of Avila (1500-1569) led the authentic effort to reform the Church and Christian society during one of its darkest hours, largely through letters and meditations. Called a spiritual master by St. Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, and John Paul II, his writings are simple and profound.

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