In a famous verse from Virgil’s grand epic poem he has the poem’s protagonist say to his close friend, “There are tears of things, and things of death touch the mind” (1.462). Perhaps it is the most famous line in the Aeneid, though there are a lot of quotable lines from that poem.That anguish, Virgil is saying in this most quotable line comes from “things of death.” The word in Latin is mortalia, which is often rendered “mortal things.” But that word “mortal” too often simply is misunderstood as meaning “human, not divine.” But the word mortalia does not mean that: it means things pertaining to death, as in the word mortuary, mortician or the all-too-aptly-named Voldemort. This is what touches our mind: death. The ancient poet Horace, too, admonishes his reader to live mindful of how short life is (Serm. 2.6.97). The reader who takes Horace seriously will ever carry at heart the tears of which Virgil speaks.
If you’ve encountered death close at hand lately, you will know that that is easier said than done. It’s a mere platitude to be able to say, “Well, you know, keep in mind we’re all mortal.” There’s that word again: mortal. The person who has experienced grief firsthand knows that such bromides don’t get you very far in the real world when you really confront the death of a loved one. And the person who has confronted that pain knows that mortal doesn’t just mean human: it means closely connected with death. It means aware of the pain and sting of death; and that person feels that they must now and forever be sad because of that pain.
But somewhere else hope is inscribed on a page, hope that complements the rich realism of Virgil and counters the glib advice of Horace or at least of the many sympathy cards that try but fail to comfort adequately. The poet of the forty-second Psalm writes,
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?” Ps. 42:3 (NIV)
This is a brutally honest description—tears as our food—followed by an equally brutally honest question, both recorded right next to each other smack in the center of the Bible: “Where is your God?” How dare people of faith mention God at a time like this, when it feels so hopeless? And yet, the psalmist knows instinctively that the only real solace not just for death but for life is that our paltry lives have meaning, real meaning. In such a circumstance the vanity of pleasure or glory have no power: they avail for naught in the face of death. Rather, only God, the One who counts up our wanderings and gathers every one of our tears into a bottle, even recording them in a book (Psalm 56:8; John 11:35), can give real comfort. He can comfort because only He can give real meaning to all our suffering, our pain, our lives and the lives of those whom we have lost.
There really are tears of things, and mortal things really do touch our minds. We can cry—it’s okay to do so; we don’t always have to “be strong.” We can be weak, too. Perhaps it is really in our weakness where we shall find more strength than we could ever have imagined. May your tears be few in this new year. But if you have them, may they have meaning, that of rich memory, real comfort and, most importantly, true significance.