Sorrow and Joy

Last Saturday, I departed from what is becoming my normal routine of biblical passage and commentary to share a prayer from Thomas Merton. I think I’ll make a similar departure this morning, but instead of a prayer, I’ll offer a poem. This particular poem is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison and it’s entitled Sorrow and Joy. Bonhoeffer was not exactly known for his poetry, but he was known for having a brilliant theological mind and this poem shows his ability to make deep connections.

His insights in this poem are powerful. He considers the natures of both sorrow and joy and finds that they compliment one another far closer than a first glance may give you. He suggests that time can easily make a moment of poignancy become suffering when dragged on too long. The poem ends with a beautiful reminder that it is at the moment of our callousness in the face of difficulty that we have to make a choice to fight against it. We can “fight the face of sorrow” with loyal hearts, not allowing ourselves to become uncompassionate because of our circumstance.

If you don’t know who Bonhoeffer is, I would suggest you take the time to read his story. It’s difficult to find a more compelling story of faith and courage in the face of oppression.

Sorrow and joy,
striking suddenly on our startled senses,
seem, at the first approach, all but impossible
of just distinction one from the other,
even as frost and heat at the first keen contact
burn us alike.
Joy and sorrow,
hurled from the height of heaven in meteor fashion,
flash in an arc of shining menace o’er us.
Those they touch are left
stricken amid the fragments
of their colorless, usual lives.

Imperturbable, mighty,
ruinous and compelling,

sorrow and joy
—summoned or all unsought for—
processionally enter.
Those they encounter
they transfigure, investing them
with strange gravity
and a spirit of worship.
Joy is rich in fears;
sorrow has its sweetness.
Indistinguishable from each other
they approach us from eternity,
equally potent in their power and terror.

From every quarter
mortals come hurrying,
part envious, part awe-struck,
swarming, and peering
into the portent,
where the mystery sent from above us
is transmuting into the inevitable
order of earthly human drama.
 
What, then, is joy? What, then, is sorrow?
Time alone can decide between them,
when the immediate poignant happening
lengthens out to continuous wearisome suffering,
when the labored creeping moments of daylight
slowly uncover the fullness of our disaster,
sorrow’s unmistakable features.
Then do most of our kind
sated, if only by the monotony
of unrelieved unhappiness,
turn away from the drama, disillusioned,
uncompassionate.
 
o ye mothers and loved ones — then, ah, then
comes your hour, the hour for true devotion.
Then your hour comes, ye friends and brothers!
Loyal hearts can change the face of sorrow,
softly encircle it with love’s most gentle
unearthly radiance.

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