We can then see our own suffering as a voluntary participation in the one Great Sadness of God. . . . Within this meaningful worldview, we can build something new, good, and forever original, while neither playing the victim nor making victims of others. We can be free conduits of grace into the world. — Richard Rohr
Recently, my young cat named Oliver struggled with a painful illness, and it occurred to me that my own deep sadness over his distress was something much bigger than me. Remembering a line from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, I even found myself saying, "It is the Great Sadness." It was as if my cat's suffering was noted and felt and permeated with that same Great Sadness that mourns the death of bees, that same Great Sadness that feels the groans of refugees and hurricane victims and gun violence. Yes, that same Great Sadness feels the suffering of this tiny gray rescue cat. It is the one Great Sadness of God, a sadness that invites us to participate. And when we do, we become channels of grace to the world.
We Are Not Alone
If we believe that God is love and that the future is open, then our sadness takes on a sacred sharing. No longer do we envisage an all-powerful king of the universe who has it "all under control." Rather, we experience the divine presence in terms of radical relationality. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, "God is the great companion — the fellow sufferer, who understands."
Our sufferings and the sufferings of our world are shared by Love incarnate who is present in every moment, every sigh, every spasm of pain in the tiniest of creatures. This Presence is not the author of suffering, but the Sharer of suffering — the source of transformation, healing, and "resurrection possibilities." This means that instead of our simply suffering and getting released from it, we become something new in the process. We die and are reborn inside the Great Sadness. We experience what process theologians often refer to as "creative transformation."
Sadness is the price I pay for loving my cat, loving others, loving God. But when I choose to enter the Great Sadness, I know that I am part of something larger, cosmic, and deeply relational.
The Great Urgency
Sometimes the Great Sadness is felt as the Great Urgency — an anxious yearning for goodness to triumph, for bees to thrive, for wars to cease, for children to be safe, for a tiny cat to survive. When we are plunged suddenly into the Great Sadness, complacency and petty concerns evaporate. Focus and urgency take over. It is as if we have fallen into deep waters, and with one breath we move urgently toward the light, air — even toward the faintest glimmerings of hope.
As I was seeking help for my cat, I managed to catch Greta Thunberg's impassioned speech to the UN on behalf of the environment. It was as if she embodied the Great Sadness, pleading with us to enter and feel it for ourselves: to know it as Greta and the thousands of young protesters experience it. They invite us into their sadness because they know that it must be entered and felt with their own sense of urgency before any transformation is possible.
The Great Sadness, then, is not simply a place to be unhappy and worry, but rather a place to feel more intensely, to connect, to experience who we are and discover what we have to contribute. When we enter the Great Sadness, what we value becomes clear and what we love is no longer taken for granted. It breaks open our capacity to feel in all directions, and it changes us. It changes the world.
The Woman Who Looked after God
One of the most vital expressions of the Great Sadness is embodied in the diaries of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jew caught in the web of horrors that became the Holocaust. Within her luminous writings, which began in 1941, we witness her ongoing spiritual transformation, or what she calls her "uninterrupted dialogue" with God. It is self-transcendent in the tradition of the great mystics. Her focus is not so much about God sharing in her pain, but rather about her sharing in God's pain.
In the first English edition of her diary, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum (1983), we are invited to share in a rare human embodiment of what Rohr means by the one Great Sadness of God. In July of 1942, she pens this prayer: "The Jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days, its white blossoms are floating about in muddy black pools on the low garage roof. But somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as ever it did. And it spreads its scent round the House in which You dwell, oh God. You can see, I look after You. I bring You not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy grey Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine. "
Inside her world growing ever darker and more perilous by the minute, Etty offers the urgent prayer "to safeguard that little piece of You, God, insides ourselves." The last sentence of her diary reads, "We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds."
This "balm" she became in the months following. Etty and her family were sent to an internment camp where she helped and inspired all those around her. And then the worst happened. On September 7, 1943, after all efforts to save Etty and her family failed, they were put on a transport train to Auschwitz. But she threw out a postcard from the train that was later picked up by a farmer. It read "We left the camp singing."
She died less than three months later. Thirty-five years later, her diary found the light of day, offering us a way through the darkness of our lives and of the present world — a world that continues to spin dark webs of cruelty and hate.
Her short but luminous life reminds us that that when we open ourselves up to the one Great Sadness of God, beauty emerges, jasmines die and bloom again, and the scent lingers on into eternity. We become "conduits of grace into the world."