Sadness Can Be an Angel or a Demon

This year throughout Lent I am writing about the desert monastic tradition and the way they understood thoughts and our relationship to them. In another article, which you can find by clicking HERE, I talked about the imagery used by these early Christian monks which describes unwanted thoughts and feelings as demons. This is a different way of understanding demons than is often presented in modern Christian circles. It is a psychological understanding which uses the imagery of demons to describe thoughts and feelings which seem to come from outside of us and happen without our consent, and that’s why they are considered to be entities other than ourselves.

In modern language we would likely say that these are subconscious thoughts that come from our past experiences or from our biology and animal nature. Not everything which comes from our subconscious or biology is automatically unwanted or bad and in this article I want to talk about how sadness can be an angel or a demon. First I would like to talk about the angel of sadness who is often named compunction. Cassian explained it like this:

“Sadness is to be judged beneficial for us in one instance alone – when we conceive it out of repentance for our sins and are inflamed by a desire for perfection, and by the contemplation of future blessedness. Of this the Apostle himself says: ‘The sadness that is in accordance with God works repentance unto a lasting salvation, but the world’s sadness works death.’ (2 Corinthians 7:10) The sadness that ‘works repentance unto a lasting salvation,’ likewise, is obedient, courteous, humble, mild, gracious, and patient, inasmuch as it comes from the love of God.”

We shed tears for many reasons. Sometimes in misery and sometimes in joy. Any deeply moving experience has the potential to bring us to tears. The realization of our inner condition and the mediocrity of our hearts can often be a life changing moment well deserving of tears. One can find countless references in the monastic tradition of being washed by our tears, which is a way of saying that they heal us. The quote above talks about weeping for our own sin, but I would add that it is equally healing to weep for the sins of others. If we have been injured by another person’s pride or violence then tears are often the most genuine and healing response. In fact, even when there is no person towards whom we can point the finger of blame, the trauma of existence means that all of us need to mourn at some point in our lives.

Crying is very healing and in this sense there is a sadness which is good. But it is good because it leads to health and joy and freedom not because we should love sadness for its own sake. This compunction is often referred to as the fear of the Lord because in the ancient world there was understood to be a connection between fear and sorrow. And so compunction, which is the fear of the Lord, is the beginning of wisdom.

The Cloud of Unknowing talks about a kind of spiritual sadness which is a precursor to spiritual joy. This sadness comes about when we fully realise that we exist. It is the weight of the knowledge of ourselves which brings about this sadness and it is this sadness which prepares us to be freed from the awareness of our own being.

The Cloud of Unknowing is part of the apophatic tradition which teaches us to let go of all ideas and images and approach God through a blind loving desire and in nothingness. Shedding tears can be a process in which we shed our attachments that keep us from true inner silence. This sacred sorrow, however, it must be said, is not a sorrow which makes life unbearable. Instead it is a sorrow which expresses the beauty of creation in a deep way. This kind of sorrow is a blessing and it can correct what is wrong in our souls if we allow it to.

The ultimate goal of the contemplative work described in The Cloud is to lose awareness of yourself and transfer your awareness to God alone. We often cling to ourselves and refuse to let go. We can’t imagine a way of being where we are not focused on ourselves. When we detach from this it can be a cause of great sorrow and fear. What will happen when we let go? Do we really want to trust in God alone and not in ourselves?

The Cloud describes this sorrow and how we should approach it like this:

Without God’s special grace, freely given, and without perfect correspondence to this grace on your part, you can never hope to destroy the naked knowing and feeling of your being. Perfect correspondence to this grace consists in a strong, deep, interior sorrow...But it is most important to moderate this sorrow. You must be careful never to strain your body or spirit irreverently.  Simply sit relaxed and quiet but plunged and immersed in sorrow. The sorrow I speak of is genuine and perfect, and blessed is the person who experiences it. Every person has plenty of cause for sorrow but the only one who understands the deep universal reason for sorrow is the one who experiences that they are...

And yet in all this, never do they desire to not-be. In fact, they rejoices that they are and from the fullness of a grateful heart give thanks to God for the gift and the goodness of their existence. At the same time, however, they desire unceasingly to be freed from the knowing and feeling of being…This sorrow prepares the heart to receive that joy through which it will finally transcend the knowing and feeling of being.”

This sacred sorrow is one which opens up into a beautiful gratitude and appreciation for God’s creation. Yet, this sorrow makes us long to be freed from the awareness of our own being so that we may transcend it, during the time of prayer, and rest in the source of all goodness and beauty which is the endless fountain of God’s love and compassion. If you experience this sadness, give thanks to God, let yourself be fully immersed in the experience, but do not strain yourself trying to create such a sadness. It is a gift from God which we respond to and not something we need to try and create or seek out.

Turning now from the angel of compunction to the demon of sadness let’s look at how sadness was understood by the desert monks. In the writing of Evagrius we see regular reference to fear and terror as part of sadness. It is often said that the enneagram took the eight demons and transformed them into the nine types, adding fear to make the numbers match. However, many people fail to realise the ancient understanding of fear as existing in sadness.

This fear often manifests itself as worry or shame. It is a fear which may or may not be about something realistic. A fear which may not even have a clearly defined object of which it is afraid. This fear often makes us feel like it is inevitable that something, anything, will go wrong any minute now. In many ways this fear is the opposite of faith.

Evagrius says that sadness often follows anger. When the raw energy of anger has subsided we are often left with a kind of sadness that is part self pity and part dread. Anger is very powerful but it runs out of steam and sadness is often waiting patiently to take its place and can go on forever if not addressed head on.

One reason for sadness is when we are disappointed by not getting something we longed for. A romantic interest who does not reciprocate our feelings. A competition we were unable to win. A business which failed. These sorts of things, Evagrius tells us, linger in our souls unfulfilled. We create stories in our minds which we wish could be true but never will be. These stories are often incredibly involved and we feel a deep attachment to them even though they aren’t real.

We reach out for a reality which does not exist and in so doing we make ourselves vulnerable to the demon of sadness who creeps in and makes us feel humiliated and shriveled up with despair. The less we entertain these unhealthy fantasies the better off we are, but they can be so incredibly difficult to let go of because even though they are only illusions they are the thing which we long for the most.

Last week I wrote about acedia. What makes sadness different from acedia is primarily the direction in which it is oriented. Acedia makes us want to give up and quit while sadness is a refusal to let go. Acedia makes us want to go out and socialize and forget our commitments while sadness makes us want to isolate ourselves and cling like a sadistic martyr to that which breaks our heart. Both could be described as boredom but acedia is an anxious boredom that wants a shortcut while sadness is a boredom that has resigned to its condition and finds a sort of perverse satisfaction in it.

The opposite virtues to this kind of sadness are faith, detachment, and joy. Faith is the contrary of fear, detachment is the contrary to the sense of loss, and joy is the contrary to sadness in general. If we develop our faith in God through prayer, reading or listening to spiritual things, and supportive community we learn to have a healthy detachment from things we expect or wish for, then we will be able to rest safely and peacefully in joy.

Cassian describes sadness as something which destroys from within. He likens it to worms eating away at wooden beams. If the human soul is the temple of God, then the worms which eat the wood away destroy the temple. The desert tradition describes sadness as a demon which takes away our ability to feel connected to God and to life in general. It rots away the very foundation of the spiritual life and the temple becomes uninhabitable. But, this is not to say that God actually abandons a person in the depths of sadness.

Rather, our ability to relate to God and others is injured and we drown in our own self pity, unaware of anyone else and unwilling to reach out to them. Sadness can come upon us without any obvious external cause more easily than other demons. Like the rotten beam it develops in secret and only becomes known when things start to fall apart. In these moments, there is no one to blame when sadness comes upon us because it has arisen from within rather than being imposed on us from the outside.

The thing to do, so Cassian tells us, is to build our inner temple from beams of cedar which do not easily succumb to burrowing worms. With sadness, preventive medicine is best. Our inner temples are wonderfully resilient and we can replace a rotten beam, but it is not easily or quickly done. The best thing for this, according to Cassian, is to have a deep and genuine connection within your community. It is friends and family which are the beams of cedar that do not rot and feelings of isolation and being unwelcome are some of the faces of this demon.

Cassian specifically points out that when sadness tells us to isolate from people and avoid conflict, we should make a point to reconcile with people we have fallen out with. Because this demon lures us into isolation we resist it with an opposite movement of engaging with loved ones. When speaking about the remedy for sadness, Cassian says, “Perfection of the heart is attained not by separation from human beings but by the virtue of patience. When this is firmly possessed it can keep us at peace even with those who hate peace.”

Patience is important in battling every demon as it brings with it discernment. Patience helps us to discern when sadness is a demon and when it is an angel. For there is a time to run humbly into the arms of compunction and a time to resist vehemently the whispers of the demon of self pity.

If you have discerned that the sadness you are experiencing is not the fruitful angel of compunction but the rotten demon of sadness then, in addition to relying on community and making human connection, you can try praying these scripture verses taken from Evagrius’ book Talking Back. You can use these verses like mantras repeated over and over again during meditation. You may also choose to align them to your breath, breathing in the first part of the verse and out with the second.

If you find yourself indulging in fantasies which only prolong your suffering by clinging to that which you cannot have, speak back to that demon with something like entry 10 in the section on sadness:

“To the soul; who is afraid, as if God’s angels do not watch over it:

‘Look, I am sending my angel before you, so that it might keep watch over you along the way, so that it might lead you into the land that I have prepared for you.'”

Exodus 17:16

One last piece of advice from Evagrius is summed up in entry 22 of the same book, which you can read below. Evagrius says in a few places that sadness is carried in the body and in particular in our backs. The astonishing part is how he teaches that music can heal the embodied sadness which afflicts us. The demon of sadness does not only affect our minds but also makes our bodies cold and heavy. The cure for this is music, in particular that of the psalms and of the harp.

“To the thought that does not know that the melody that accompanies the Psalms alters the condition of the body and drives away the demon that touches it on the back, chills its sinews, and troubles all its members:

‘It happened that when the evil spirit was upon Saul, David took his harp and played with his hand, and Saul was refreshed, and it was good with him, and the evil spirit departed from him.'”

1 Samuel 16:23

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