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Five Remedies for Sorrow From Saint Thomas Aquinas

October 1, 2013

100113One doesn’t usually think to go first to the Summa Theologica for advice on emotional matters. Yet in this post we shall indeed go to St Thomas here, seek advice on sorrow and consider some of his remedies for it. His advice is contained primarily in the Prima Secundae questions 35 – 37.

St. Thomas follows some of the eastern fathers in naming four kinds of sorrow (cf I IIae 35:8): Anxiety, Torpor, Pity, and Envy. Let’s look at each before examining some of the remedies he suggests:

1. Anxiety  – is a kind of sorrow that emerges when the mind is weighed down with something so as to make escape seem impossible. Thomas’ definition is likely rooted in the Latin word angustia which means a narrow pass or straight. And thus anxiety tends to arise when we experience stress about a situation and find no room to maneuver, no way out. Anxiety also tends to regard the future, whereas pain regards to present. In pain, one can suffer in the moment about the situation, but knows that it will pass. But anxiety arises when we sense no determined end to the painful situation, no room to maneuver, and no way out.

Thomas calls anxiety a form of sadness. And so also in modern culture we often link anxiety and depression. This is because anxiety, as a sorrow, weighs us down. And just as joy and hope tend to expand and lighten, the sorrow of anxiety tends to crush and turn us inward. It makes us feel limited, hemmed in, confined, and heavily weighed down.

Someone once said that depression is anger turned inward. This makes sense, because anger results from fear and anxiety, and anger that cannot be expressed or managed becomes like a heavy weight or depression.

2. Torpor – is an uncommon word today, but literally, it refers to slowness of movement. When one is sorrowful or depressed, they are less motivated to move. St. Thomas says If, however, the mind be weighed down so much, even the limbs become motionless, which belongs to “torpor” (I IIae 35.8). Even ordinary talking with others, which is a kind of movement, seems difficult and arduous. The sorrow we call torpor, slows us down, and makes us feel rundown, sluggish.

Inactivity tends to build, and the less motivated we feel, the less we move, and the less we move, the less motivated we feel; a kind of downward spiral.

This is why those who are experiencing depression are often encouraged to find a friend that will make them move about, make them go places, even if they don’t feel like it. This helps to stave off the downward spiral the torpor brings.

The second two types of sorrow that relate more to our experience of other people’s circumstances these are pity and envy.

3. Pity – is the sorrow that we feel for the evil or misfortune endured by another person. But it is deeper than mere regret or perturbance. Pity is to experience the misfortune of another, as though it were our own.

Pity therefore implies a felt relationship. Perhaps it involves a close friend or family member, but it can also be the felt relationship of common humanity with the one who suffers.

Of itself, pity is a proper and good sorrow born in love. And yet, like any common human emotions or passions, it can be tainted by sinfulness. For example, sometimes pity results more from ego needs wherein one develops a sort of condescending attitude, needing to see others as beneath them or worse off.

And thus, what masquerades as pity is too easily and merely the drive to be in a superior position vis-à-vis another person. Patronizing attitudes are a misguided pity where we do for people what they should rightfully do for themselves, and too easily rob others of their dignity and their call to live responsible lives.

Hence, pity, like any sorrow has to be moderated and helped by reason, and also the understanding that it is not always possible or helpful to assist everyone, in every circumstance, simply because we feel sorrow for their condition. Sometimes the best we can do is listen to them, and pray for them.

Properly understood pity is a very beautiful emotion or passion rooted in love for others.

4. Envy – on the other hand, is a very dark sorrow rooted in sin. I have written more extensively on envy here: ENVY. For this reflection let it suffice to say that envy is a form of sorrow, or anger at the excellence, or good fortune of another person, because I take it somehow to lessen my own glory perceived excellence.

Envy is a particularly dark sin, because it seeks to destroy the goodness in others rather than to celebrate it. If I am jealous of you, you have something I want. But when I am envious, I seek to destroy that which is good in you. That is why St. Augustine called envy THE diabolical sin.

While discussing these four types of sorrow, St. Thomas also discusses some solutions to overcome them. We will look at them. But first, since envy sort of stands apart from the other forms of sorrow, due to its always sinful quality, the remedy for it is also unique. The remedy for envy are the gifts of joy and Zeal. When someone else has excellence or  good fortune, the proper response to seek is to rejoice with them and for them,  as members of one body. When one member is praised, all the members are praised, when one member is blessed, all the members are blessed. This is rational and reasonable we should seek from God the gift of joy at the excellence or good fortune of another person. We should also seek from God the virtue of  zeal, wherein we seek to imitate, where possible, the excellence we observe in others.

Remedies – As for the other forms of sorrow, anxiety, torpor, and pity, Saint Thomas advises some of the following remedies:

1. Weeping –  St. Thomas makes a very interesting observation and where there is laughter and smiling there is increased joy. But weeping, rather than increasing sorrow, diminishes it. How is this? He says, First, because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened. (I IIae 38.2) Thus tears are the soul’s way to exhale sorrow. For when we weep, we release sorrow. Tears have a way of flushing it from our system.

It is a rather beautiful and freeing insight, especially for some of us who were raised with more Stoic notions. Many of us, especially men, were often told not to cry, not to show emotions. But of course such an approach seldom works, for the more we shut up our sorrow, the more the mind ruminates on it. Better to weep and let it run out like water through our tears.

2. Sharing our sorrows with friends – Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man, for if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccl 4:10-11) Aristotle also says “Sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.”

The danger to avoid in sorrow is  turning in on ourselves. We often need the perspective of others. And even if they don’t have many answers to give, or solutions to offer, simply speaking with them of our sorrow is itself a form of release, when it comes to sorrow. St. Thomas also adds: when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure….[and] every pleasure assuages sorrow [Ibid].

3. Contemplating the truth –  The word philosophy, means “the love of wisdom,” and for those schooled by it, it provides a great consolation. St Thomas says the greatest of all pleasures consists in the contemplation of truth. Now every pleasure assuages pain…hence the contemplation of truth assuages pain or sorrow, and the more so, the more perfectly one is a lover of wisdom. (I IIae 38.4)

This is even more so, with the contemplation of sacred truth, wherein we are reminded of our final glory and happiness if we persevere. Hence, we are given perspective and reminded of the passing qualities of sorrow in this life, that “trouble don’t last always”, and that the sufferings of this world cannot compare with the glory to be revealed.

4. Pleasure – We have already seen that St. Thomas says “pleasure assuages pain.” If one is physically tired, then sleep is a solution. And if one is in pain or sorrow, pleasure is also helpful remedy.

In sudden and heavy loss or sorrow, some period of quiet convalescence maybe called for. But, there comes a time when one must  go forth and savor the better things in life once again.

One of the Psalms says When sorrow was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul (Ps 94:19). And hence, into pain, God will often send consoling pleasures which should be appreciated and savored, with proper moderation of course.

Every now and again as a priest, ministering to those where there has been a tragic or sudden loss of a spouse or other beloved family member, some of those who mourn almost feel guilty when going forth into the world again to enjoy the better things, laughter, good company, and entertainment. But it does little honor to those who died that we should also cease living. There comes a time after suitable in brief mourning one must go forth reclaim the joy of life again.

5. A Warm bath and naps – here is a rather charming remedy that St. Thomas recommends. Charming though it may seem, it  is very good advice, but we are not simply soul, we are also body. And our bodies and souls interact and influence each other.  Sometimes if the soul is vexed, caring for the body will bring soothing help,  even to the soul. St Thomas says, Sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body; and consequently whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it. (I IIae 38.5)

On the one hand, we live in a culture that tends to overindulge the body. And yet, to overindulge the bodies not really to care for the body. Frankly some of our overindulgence stresses the body, and also thereby vexes the soul.

Surely what St. Thomas has in mind here is the proper care of the body. Whether that means a warm bath, or a gentle walk, or naps, the soothing care of the body can help alleviate sorrow.

Sorrow! It does find us. But in the midst of it, there are some gifts in strange packages. Simply to learn these simple truths can be a gift:  that tears are the soul’s way to exhale, that we ought to reach out and stay in communion with others who can help us, that meditating on eternal truth is important, and that proper soothing care of ourselves has his place.

Sorrow also reminds us that this is not home, that we ought to set our gaze on the place where joy shall never end, even as we must journey through what is often a valley of tears. And yet, does not the Book of Revelation remind us to regard what the Lord will do for those who die in him:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning,  crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Rev 21:4)

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

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Comments (22)

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  1. Nick says:

    So that’s why women like to take bubble baths. 🙂

  2. Laura says:

    Beautiful. Amen indeed.

  3. Susan says:

    Very informative post! And very helpful personally…you are an excellent teacher. Thank you, Msgr. Pope. And thank you for the sublime music!

  4. John Darrouzet says:

    Thanks for this.

  5. Ruth Ann says:

    I appreciating your listing St. Thomas’ suggestions. I would have done well at an earlier age to do #2, but I was very tight-lipped. Still, it’s not too to take that counsel to heart.

  6. Jeannie says:

    Super! Ty. Ah, the battle of life and it’s challenges is never without loved ones, Jesus, Holy Mother Church with its constant prayers especially celebration of Mass that starts about every 3 minutes somewhere on God’s good earth, the Communion of Saints, and, of course, our Queen Mother of all, Mary Immaculate to name but a few. Oh, and yes! there’s querido Monsignor. 🙂 God is good to us all the time.

  7. Vijaya says:

    Thank you, Father, for all these distinctions. I have the Summa on my kindle, but haven’t cracked it open. I recently acquired a St. Thomas medal and was thinking I should try to read him. Still getting used to the electronic format. I do appreciate that it’s lighter than any book.

  8. RichardGTC says:

    I intend to share this one with my mom, my brother, and my sisters.

  9. Smitty says:

    I have discovered friendship with the Lord, my angel and Mary too. They are always there to listen when earthly friends are absent.

  10. NinaBG says:

    Here’s a quote: “Two in distress make sorrow less.” –Samuel Beckett

    Great article! Thank you. Friendship is the key.

  11. Martha says:

    “Thus tears are the soul’s way to exhale sorrow. For when we weep, we release sorrow. Tears have a way of flushing it from our system.”
    What a wonderful way to explain our need to cry at times. And as St. Theresa of Avila calls tears and the ability to cry – a gift.
    Thank you so much for your daily words of wisdom.

  12. Rick says:

    Thanks Msgr. Sage advice from the sage himself.
    The reason why remedy #3 works is because it places sorrow and suffering in context. When we know that there is an ultimate purpose to our suffering, it makes it bearable, indeed, for the saints, it brings them joy. This is one of the main points made by Victor Frankl in “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

  13. linda eaton says:

    Very helpful, thank you. I would like to add a bit of scripture I have found helpful. Proverbs 31:6+7. Balanced with the vivid picture of over-indulgence in 23, the last several verses. Blessings to you and yours 🙂

  14. Mucho Macho says:

    Father, thank you for this. Do you have something for scruples?

  15. mothman says:

    only antidepressant meds help control major depression, not bullshit religion

    • What if you could do both? I have! Also if you notice, weeping, talking with friends and warm baths are not religious per se, they are human.

      OK y’all lets pray for Mothman. He seems to be hurting.

  16. yan says:

    Great post. Are there any benefits to the soul gained by NOT sharing or assuaging sorrow mentioned by St. Thomas? I am thinking that removing or lessening our sorrows is not always the most beneficial thing for us or for others.

  17. Theresa Jackson says:

    Dear Msgr. Pope,
    I was thoroughly enjoying this post until the end. I am a bereaved mother. Our oldest son was killed three years ago. We attend a parental support group and attended a national conference for bereaved parents. We have found very little support from the church after the initial outpouring of support. Once six months was passed and we seemed to be doing so well, we were expected to be over our grief. And a year, well, surely we were over it by then. What we have learned from our support group, professionals, at the conference, is that grief and mourning never end. And the first two years is considered “fresh” grief. The first year is the year of shock. I am greatly concerned when I see a statement like the one you made “There comes a time after suitable in brief mourning one must go forth reclaim the joy of life again.” Define brief please. Define suitable if you will? See, it is statements like the above that further the myth that one can simply orchestrate when one enters back into “joy”. For a bereaved parent even joy becomes re-defined, must be re-discovered. I was so hopeful as I read your article, finally a clergy who understood, who was willing to allow grief and sorrow, and yet by your chosen way to end the article, I see that you do not understand at all. Grief and mourning are not in conflict with being a Christian, and yet if one truly has the courage to enter into the darkness of mourning, then are scorned and berated by the very people who should be supporting them in this darkest of all dark nights.

    • I am sorry for your loss. I write in a general way to the general situation. And hence, while you take personal offense at what I have written in a general way, about general situations, I do not intend personal offense to you. Perhaps there are those near you who can assess and help in your specific situation. But I am not sure I deserve the tone you exhibit here.

      Just for the record, I have known personal, sudden and tragic loss too. My Sister died in a fire, and and my mother died by getting lost in a terrible blizzard and froze to death.

      I suspect your pain generates your harsh tone to me, but I intend no offense, and I do understand sudden loss and deep grief. Your judgement of me is unwarranted, not supported by the facts of my own life, or pastoral ministry, or even of many other articles I have written here. Your tone, it would seem, rests solely on your interpretation of advice I gave of a general nature. I am writing to more than Theresa here, I am writing to all sorts of people in all sorts of situations. You do not speak for all the bereaved.

      And while your grief may explain your harsh and critical tone, it does not excuse it. And if you treat me, a stranger this way, I am concerned with how you may treat others whom you dismiss here and simply “scorners and beraters.” I rather doubt they are all as awful as you describe and I say this as one who has been harshly judged by you to be what I am not.

      Surely there is someone on the scene who can help you make the necessary journey, But Jesus did not die for you to be locked in grief forever or to stay in the “darkest of all dark nights.” Yes grief and mourning are not in conflict with faith, but being frozen there is. I pray you will find some one who can help you rekindle the hope of joy proper to the Christian who has suffered loss.

      I am sorry for your loss, but sorrow should not be equated with pity or with a blanket endorsement of anything a grieving person wants to say nor does it give you permission to demand that others simply affirm your version of grief. True sorrow seeks to bring healing. And healing is not always easy, nor does it come on the wings of mere affirmation. Jesus, often said, “Do not weep…Do not be afraid.” St. Paul said “Rejoice in the Lord always…” These are healing words, not always easy to hear or implement, but said by them nonetheless. I can say nothing less.