The Little Fox in the Vineyard: Sadness

by Sr Ann Swailes

(In our series 'The Eight deadly Thoughts)


So it looks like I’ve drawn the short straw tonight. As you know, this talk forms part of a series entitled Eight Evil Thoughts, in which so far my sisters have offered reflections on gluttony, lust and avarice, with evenings devoted to anger and pride still to come. Compared with all that, not only does tonight’s topic – sadness -  sound a little, well, sad; somewhat tame, lacklustre and devoid of excitement. More seriously, I suspect – and hope – that some of you may be wondering: in what sense does this theme fit into a series devoted to evil thoughts, specifically?

The title for this series comes from a way of thinking about obstacles to progress in the life of Christian discipleship associated with the monks living in the Egyptian desert in the 4th century. In  the course of the early Middle Ages, the eight evil thoughts of the desert fathers developed into the notion of the seven capital vices, or, in more common parlance, the seven deadly sins: those patterns of thoughts and behaviour which constitute a kind of vicious circle taking us spiralling away from the closeness to God for which we were made.

Whilst gluttony, lust, avarice and so on might sound more alluring than sadness, we know, probably without too much thinking about it, that these are enticements we ought to avoid. It’s relatively easy to see how disordered attitudes to food and drink, to sexuality and to material possessions might damage our friendship with Christ, as well as ourselves and our neighbours, even if it’s sometimes far from easy to do anything about this. But – what’s evil about sadness?  We might not like being sad, but surely it’s not blameworthy? Indeed, mightn’t there be something wrong with us if, at least sometimes we didn’t feel sad? Well, to issue something of a spoiler alert, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes: there are times when sadness is not only inevitable but right.  At the moment, for instance, many of us may be experiencing feelings of sadness – perhaps in ways and to an extent we frankly might not have predicted – as part of a complex mix of emotions generated by the death of the Queen. Surely that doesn’t make us bad people? No it does not. And especially at this time of year we might go for a walk in the woods and feel a twinge of sadness at the evidence all around us of the impermanence of the natural world, as leaves turn golden and fall from the trees, even as we are uplifted by the beauty of the autumn landscape: that doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong, but rather that we’re responding with appropriate sensitivity to God’s lovely and fragile creation. Not all sad thoughts are evil thoughts.

Feeling uncomfortable about the idea of enrolling sadness in the same company as lust, anger, gluttony, and so on, I think alerts us to something quite significant. It’s striking for instance, that, as the Middle Ages progressed, and the Eight Evil Thoughts became the Seven Deadly Sins, sadness was in fact the one of the eight that fell by the wayside. The instinct that there is something different about sadness goes deep. This is why, far from feeling hard done by tonight, I actually volunteered to talk about sadness, and feel especially privileged to be offering this reflection in particular.

 Sadness is what the philosophers call a non-univocal term. It has a range of meanings which, though related to each other in various ways, are not all the same: when we say “sadness” we’re not always saying the same thing.  Before we decide, therefore, whether sadness is a good thing, a bad thing, a mixture of both, or maybe not quite either, whether it’s something that gets in the way of our friendship with Christ or promotes it, we have to know what we’re talking about when we talk about sadness. That perhaps sounds fairly obvious: it’s worth stressing, though, because getting it wrong can have potentially disastrous consequences. After all, as St Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians,[1] there is a sadness that brings death and a sadness that leads to life. If we confuse them, we surely risk doing ourselves – or others – significant damage. Get it right, though, and I think some immensely exciting vistas open up before us.

In tonight’s talk, then, I’d like to do two things. First, I want to spend a little time, exploring the rather distinctive concept of sadness to be found in the tradition springing from the desert fathers, and ask how their insights might be helpful to us in our developing friendship with Christ.

Secondly, I’m going to suggest we explore a little more generally what the role of sadness in the Christian life might be as perhaps we rather more usually understand it today, sadness, that is, as simply how we respond to pain and suffering.  And here, as I’ve already hinted, we’ll find ourselves in a rather different kind of landscape. We won’t have time for more than a very brief visit, but I do encourage you to return in your own time.

Why Foxes?

But, before any of that, a word or two about the title we’ve given tonight’s talk: the Little Fox in the Vineyard. It comes from that most baffling and beautiful book of the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs, where, at first sight somewhat incongruously, in the middle of a passionate dialogue between two lovers, the narrator breaks off to command: “catch us the foxes:  the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom”. [2]

Now, the Song of Songs, of course, is a love poem, a poem about erotic love, perhaps originally composed for a marriage feast, full of lavishly, if sometimes startlingly sensual imagery, but readings of it as something else aren’t necessarily a prudish evasion of that fact. Rather, they are, or should be,  a recognition that the power and the beauty of human sexuality is a fitting symbol of an even more powerful, more beautiful love, the love of God for his people, and for each one of us made in his image. Needless to say, these two interpretations – the personal and the communal -are complementary. Over the centuries many commentators (and there are said to be more Medieval commentaries on the Song than on any other scriptural text) explore both. What about those foxes, though?  

Over the centuries, interpretations of the Song of Songs that have stressed that it’s about Christ and the Church have often seen the little foxes as non-Christian opponents of the faith, marauding predators who threaten to tear the body of Christ apart. More immediately relevant to our purposes tonight, those who put the emphasis on a more personal interpretation see them as pretty much anything that gets in the way of our intimacy with Christ. Here the littleness of the little foxes is either stressed as an encouragement for us not to lose heart; these aren’t man-eating wolves we’re talking about, after all; just itty-bitty little fox cubs who ought to be easy enough to get rid of – or as an incentive to deal with them before they grow up into big foxes who can do more damage.

Now, both these ways of thinking about little foxes give us resources to respond to all the eight thoughts: we do indeed need to be vigilant about all the things we might allow to get in the way of our friendship with Christ – so we need to deal with the root causes of sin and their first manifestations in our lives rather than allowing sinful habits to build up, a theme which comes up again and again in the desert Fathers and in the tradition that stems from them – we need, in other words, to catch the foxes while they’re still little. And it is also important to keep this vigilance in proportion and not become paralysed by it: we need to remember that compared to the strength of Christ, all our spiritual enemies are puny: these are indeed only little foxes.  But why are we thinking about sadness in particular as having rusty red fur and a bushy tail? Medieval accounts which associate different animals with each of the Seven Deadly Sins typically make the fox the symbol for avarice. Why, then, is this a particular apt title for tonight’s talk?

Well, notice where these foxes are: in a vineyard, and what might that make us think of? Well,  because of the wine for which they provide the raw material, vineyards are surely symbolic of joy, and whatever sadness is, we might feel we’re at least on secure ground when we speak of it as the opposite of joy. These foxes are out to ruin a vineyard, to ruin our joy, and if and so far as sadness is a bad thing, an evil thought, joy is surely a good one: the apostle Paul, after all, tells us to rejoice in the Lord always, and there are similar injunctions in the psalms, so we need to resist the little foxes that threaten it. And a vineyard isn’t something that just happens; it has to be cultivated – and protected. If we want to keep the evil thought-foxes of sadness at bay, it will be necessary to develop spiritual practices to counter them, necessary, then, to develop a spirituality of joy.

But it might also be worth reflecting that a fox in a vineyard is not a fox in its natural habitat. Maybe that at least leaves open the thought that while these foxes are doing a bad thing, spoiling the vines, it might be possible to imagine them outside the vineyard doing a good thing.  There might be a place for foxes, where, far from being destructive vermin, they, like all of creation, reflect the beauty and wisdom of the Creator simply by doing what he made them to do, going about their foxy business and giving glory to God in the process.  Sadness, in other words, might not always wreck things; it might sometimes mend, nourish and strengthen them. But that, of course, all depends what we mean by sadness.

The Evil Thought of Sadness in Cassian.

So at this point let’s turn to our text from the ancient past. John Cassian, a fourth century priest born probably in modern-day Romania, wrote his Monastic Institutes, in which he offers the fruit of decades of reflection on his experiences of the lives of monks in the Egyptian desert, in response to a request from a bishop in Provence who was looking for guidelines for potential recruits for a monastery he was establishing in his diocese, and we might at first sight wonder what this work has to say to us in 21st century Cambridge. In fact, there is much here that is surprisingly relevant in our very different circumstances.

 After dealing with how monks should dress and the structure of their common prayer, Cassian turns to consider eight patterns of destructive thought and behaviour which, he tells us, need to be addressed by anyone who hopes to make progress in monastic life, but, more generally we could say, by anyone who wants to respond to the common calling of all the baptized, and to grow closer to Christ.  And among these opponents to our Christian vocation, Cassian lists what he calls the spirit of tristitia, sadness. [3]

Like the English word sadness, Cassian’s Latin tristitia, is a word with a wide range of meanings, and Cassian himself is well aware of this. But for that very reason, sadness, though an accurate translation, is potentially a misleading one. Cassian  does not give equal attention to everything that might be called tristitia in Latin, or sadness in English: as I’ve already suggested, and as we’ll see repeatedly, not all sad thoughts are evil thoughts.  Translators of Cassian, therefore, have occasionally given his spirit of tristitia other names. Some of these I think are worse, because far from being rather vague and all encompassing, like sadness, they are all too specific, and specifically and potentially dangerously wrong: I’m thinking especially of translations such as depression and melancholy: again, more of this later.

The ones I like best that I’ve seen, because they do seem to capture something Cassian talks about, are despondency and gloominess, both of which, to me at any rate, have connotations of collaboration with one’s feeling of dejection, maybe even a kind of relishing of it,  the sort of thing, perhaps, to be seen in the loveable (and to some of us relatable) but infuriating character of Eeyore the gloomy donkey in A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh: “good morning...if it is a good morning...which I doubt”. Maybe even grumpiness might fit the bill here because one thing that Cassian particularly stresses is the effect on others of sadness in this sense. It makes us irritable: not only do we not want the companionship of our friends and loved ones when we’re in this kind of state, but we let them know it. Tristitia makes us “impatient and touchy” he says, so that “we are unable to welcome even our nearest and best beloved with our usual cheerfulness, and whatever conversation they make with us, we find irrelevant and unwanted.”

Cassian describes the spirit of sadness, first of all, in fact, as damaging to our recollection at prayer and preventing us from finding consolation in reading scripture. But it’s interesting that he then immediately goes on to mention the effect that it has on both our relationships with others, and our day to day work. It’s important that we set about doing something about this, then, not simply because it disturbs our peace of mind, but because it cuts to the very core of who we are and what we’re made for: “as moths destroy clothing and worms wool, so sadness destroys the heart of man” (Proverbs 25:20). Human hearts are indeed made, as St Augustine tells us, to rest in God, but not in a cosy and exclusively inward looking tete-a-tete, but rather in outgoing praise of him, and loving service to his creation expressed in the way we relate to each other, and go about our daily business. And all of this, Cassian suggests, is undermined by the evil thought of sadness.

Such sadness often arises, Cassian considers, either from anger or from frustrated desires for material goods, but he is aware that we can’t always so easily assign a cause: sometimes tristitia appears in our lives for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, he’s adamant that even when we can’t easily work out what has made us sad, it’s important not to evade responsibility for our sadness.  So, in the first place, we shouldn’t take refuge in that kind of over-spiritualisation according to which it’s all the devil’s fault. Cassian is quite sure the devil is involved: we may, as he puts it, find ourselves “cast down by the enemy’s insinuations”, but – he implies -  we shouldn’t allow ourselves to stay cast down (maybe this would be a good place to remember the littleness of those little foxes: in Christ we have overcome the devil) Still less should we blame other human beings. Strikingly, he draws a parallel here with disordered sexuality, giving the example of a man overcome by what he calls the “depths of carnal lust” at the sight of a woman. This is emphatically not her fault – and thus, incidentally, Cassian says a resounding and radical no to all those subtle and not so subtle notions that occasionally raise their heads around discussions of purity and modesty to the effect that victims of sexual assault have it coming to them. But nor does the temptation come, so to speak, from nowhere: it comes from within. The man’s sinful action at this moment has an identifiable starting point in the state of his soul prior to his encounter with the woman. As Cassian puts it: “we have the germs of vice hidden within ourselves, so that when the dew of temptation waters the mind, they spring up at once into branches and fruits”.  And this, he thinks, is true of all the eight evil thoughts.

In regard to sadness, in particular, this notion is a really interesting one, one that needs careful handling, I think, but which I find extremely illuminating.

Cassian speaks of “meditation on divine things” and the thought of “hope for the future and the consideration of our promised bliss” as the remedies for the kind of sadness he’s been speaking of, and no doubt he’s right. If we could always fix our hearts and minds on the contemplation of the joys of heaven, by comparison with which any loss or disappointment we have experienced on earth pales into insignificance, then of course there would be no room in our hearts and minds for the dejection or gloominess born of frustration. But, as Cassian himself has already told us, sadness in this sense is precisely the thing that prevents us from doing just this. When sadness invades our hearts and minds it makes us disinclined to pray, and incapable of taking comfort in the Bible.  When we are downcast, therefore, it will rarely be enough to tell ourselves – and it is likely to be still more rare for it to be appropriate for us to tell others – to pull ourselves together and to count our blessings. This is not because gratitude, and dwelling on our reason to hope are not good and beautiful spiritual practices. They are, and as Cassian insists, they’re life-giving. But we’re unlikely to be able to take them up when we are already cast down by sadness, and commanding ourselves, or others, to do so is often likely to be counterproductive. When we find we cannot manufacture to order the gratitude we know we ought to feel for God’s gifts to us, we may very well sink into guilt about this which makes us still more despondent, perhaps especially if we are insensitively encouraged to contrast our situation with that of those who are “really suffering”.    Rather, we must, as Cassian puts it, “build up the mind” in advance: we need to be established in the practice of such things before we are afflicted by the evil thought of sadness.  Then indeed, they are not merely healing remedies, but actually prophylactic: reliably preventative medicine rather than dubiously effective cures.

This doesn’t mean that we can guarantee that, provided we say our prayers, we’ll never be unhappy. A cursory glance at the lives of some of the greatest saints in our tradition ought to be enough to disabuse us of that idea. But, more comfortingly, nor, therefore, should we regard our unhappiness as something to beat ourselves up over, evidence that we are not truly in love with God, or worse, evidence that he is not truly in love with us. Such thinking is caused precisely by confusing this rather specialised sense of the word sadness with its rather less precise meaning in common parlance. So let’s think a bit more about what this more general sense the word might be.

Sadness and the Paschal Mystery

I’ve suggested that we can think of sadness quite straightforwardly as our response to pain and suffering, and there are, I think, two mistaken attitudes to suffering that we might harbour as Christians, which are apparently contradictory, but which actually have, I think something quite important in common.  Fortunately, as we’ll see, our tradition provides the same remedy for both.

The first is to hold that sadness is always and simply wrong; always and simply a sign of insufficient gratitude to God and concern for others, and always and simply, therefore, vulnerable to our attempts to fight it. On this account, if we were really living the Christian life as it should be lived, there would be no room for sadness.  Now, we’ve seen that the kind of “sadness” Cassian identifies can indeed be characterised in these terms, but this is very far from being the whole story.  Those who are clinically depressed, the bereaved, those struggling with a terminal diagnosis, those who are broken down by the sufferings of those they love; none of these are simply afflicted by the evil thought of sadness This is why I feel so strongly that we should resist translating “sadness” in Cassian’s works by terms like depression or melancholy. As we have seen, Cassian is adamant that the kind of sadness he is talking about is something for which we bear personal responsibility. But the  last thing those who are suffering the hell of depression, or failing to thrive emotionally after the death of a loved one, need is well meaning Christian friends telling them that it is somehow their fault, and that it would go away if only they would try hard enough.

In preparing this talk, I did a quick internet search and discovered large numbers of articles on websites of various Christian traditions addressing the question “is it a sin to be sad”, or, even more heartbreakingly, “is it a sin to be depressed?” Encouragingly, the vast majority of responses to these queries, at least of those I could bring myself to read, were concerned to reassure their readers that no, it is not a sin to be sad, and that Christians who are depressed should seek professional help without any suggestion that in doing so they are somehow letting the side down. But it is distressing that such questions need to be asked, though, from my own pastoral experience, not, alas, entirely surprising.  At least equally alarmingly, there was the person who wrote in to a Catholic website to ask how it could be the case that Our Lady suffered at the sight of Jesus on the Cross, if she was immaculately conceived and therefore free from sin, including the sin of suffering. Something has surely gone very, very wrong when committed Catholics are even tempted to see compassion as somehow incompatible with holiness.

It is, of course, hard to see how such views can be squared with the narrative at the centre of our faith, the  story of the first Holy Week, where we see God’s perfect love for us manifested most powerfully in the mental anguish as well as the physical pain of Jesus, but the notion that sadness is inevitably culpable is perhaps a particularly tempting analysis in our culture, chiming with some very prevalent attitudes which suggest that to be unhappy is to be a failure, indeed that weakness is a failure, per se and a moral failure at that. And, however counter-cultural we may believe ourselves to be as Christians, we are never entirely immune to the spirit of the age.     One way in which contemporary Christians sometimes attempt to have this particular slice of cake and eat it, to be both disciples of Christ and children of our own time, is to view the Passion through the lens of the stiff upper lip: we know, as St Peter tells us in his first epistle, that Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example,[4] and, on this account, that example is above all the example of keeping calm and carrying on.

The trouble with that reading, of course, is that it is seriously inattentive to how Our Lord actually behaves in Gethsemane, on the way of the Cross, and at Calvary itself: he prays in anguish to be spared his Passion (and specifically describes himself as sad, sorrowful) he accepts the assistance of Simon of Cyrene – presumably because he needs it – he cries out from the Cross. All of this is an example for us – everything that Christ does and suffers is to teach us, and that includes these moments of unimaginable dereliction and vulnerability. Whatever else we might want to say about sadness and suffering, surely we have to say that just dismissing it as sinful capitulation to weakness won’t do. Christ suffered and was sad; Our Lady suffered and was sad.  As Catholic Christians we believe them both to be sinless. There are, then, at least some forms of sadness that are in no way blameworthy, indeed they might even be meritorious: after all, it can’t be a bad thing, can it, to be like Jesus and Mary?

And this brings me to the second attitude to sadness that I think we would do well to avoid.  I suspect it might in fact come as a surprise to many of our secular contemporaries to know that Christians, perhaps especially Catholics, are ever tempted to see sadness as inherently sinful.  A more common caricature of our faith, after all, would be one that sees it as a matter of unrelieved gloom, pathologically obsessed with pain, maybe puritanically avoiding pleasure, viewing sadness, therefore, as altogether a good thing. And, though this is a caricature, and we’re rightly distressed by it, there is perhaps something in the criticism that deserves our attention. After all, one of the central images of our faith is indeed Jesus suffering on the Cross, with his grief stricken mother beside him. If to be holy is to be like Jesus and Mary, and Jesus is above all the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and Mary above all his Sorrowful Mother, does that mean that the sadder we are the holier we are, because the more we will then resemble Jesus and Mary?

The problems with this approach are fairly obvious.  After all, if it is good, and holy to suffer, why should I be concerned to alleviate the sufferings of others? Aren’t I doing them a favour by leaving them in their misery? Mightn’t it even be a good thing for us to seek out suffering, and encourage others to do so?

There are I think undeniably some strands of Catholic spirituality which are not altogether immune to this terrible temptation; exaggerated emphasis on bodily penance, for instance, which, though it is sometimes described as “Medieval”, or belonging to the so-called “Dark Ages”, is sadly still observable in some quarters today, but it should be just as unthinkable to Catholics as the attitude that sees all sadness as sinful, and for rather similar reasons. This approach too seems to view the events of Holy Week somewhat selectively. We might say that whereas the advocates of what I called the stiff upper lip approach have sidelined Good Friday, those who place suffering exclusively centre stage in our spiritual life are at risk of ignoring Easter, forgetting that Jesus did not simply come to suffer, not even to teach us how to suffer and to offer our suffering in union with his, though this is a beautiful and important theme in Catholic piety, when it’s rightly understood. No, he came to bring us with him through suffering to joy, through death to resurrection. Suffering and sadness was not an end in itself for Jesus: it was for the joy that was set before him that he endured the Cross[5] - and it should never be an end in itself for those who are his followers and friends.  Focussing on the whole of the story of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, then, keeps sadness in its proper place, we might say; keeps the little foxes out of the vineyard where they can spoil the vines of holy compassion and hope.  

Foxes in their Natural Habitat: the uses of sadness.

But I promised that we would also think, at least briefly, about foxes in their natural habitat, about sadness, that is to say, as playing not a pathological but a healthy role in our journey with the Lord. Here, two things in particular spring to mind. The first is, in fact, again to be found in Cassian. While, as we’ve seen, Cassian does major on the destructive role of sadness in the Christian life, sadness as an evil thought, this leads him to point out something rather more encouraging, something that, far from tearing down and consuming our closeness to Christ, actually builds it up.

Sadness, for Cassian, arises out of a sense of frustration – our anger has not achieved the results we hoped for; our inability to attain or keep the material goods we have set our hearts on causes us pain. But there is another potent source of frustration for those who seek to follow Jesus – namely, our sense of separation from him, our failure to attain or keep the intimate relationship with him for which we long. When sadness arises in our hearts because of this kind of disappointment, it takes the form of sorrow for our sins, and, as Cassian notes, it is in fact the distinction between this and the evil thought of sadness that St Paul has in mind when he speaks of sadness as being either life-giving or death-dealing: worldly sorrow which leads to death, godly sorrow that brings repentance in its train.

But sadness can be life-giving in other ways too, most notably, perhaps, in the way that it can promote solidarity and sympathy with others in pain.  This is not an automatic process, of course: on the contrary, suffering frequently isolates the sufferer within their own battered psyche with brutalising consequences, leading either to indifference to the suffering of others, or even to a desire to see others suffer as we ourselves have done.  As the poet W B Yeats says, too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart[6], and doubtless all of us are all too aware of the phenomenon of the bully whose violence is a cry for help, the abused who becomes the abuser. But probably most of us are aware, too, of how the experience of suffering can lead to a softening of the heart, an imaginative entering into the pain of another which is simply not available to those who have not suffered, or have not suffered in the same way. When we are in pain, we likely turn most instinctively to those who “know what we are going through”, witnessing to the truth of St Paul’s description of how Christ “helps us in all our troubles, so that we may help others, using the same help that we have ourselves received”. There is nothing evil here; on the contrary, this is sadness as cooperation with the merciful and supremely good work of God himself.

Not all thoughts of sadness are evil thoughts. We do not then perhaps always need to kill the little foxes we catch. Sometimes, on the contrary, we need to make friends with them.







[1] 2 Corinthians 7:10

[2] Song of Songs 2:15

[3] Cassian Monastic Institutes Book IX

[4] 1 Peter 2:21

[5] Hebrews 12:2

[6] W B Yeats, “Easter 1916”

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