The Sixth Spiritual Work of Mercy:
To Comfort the Afflicted
We use the word “comfort” to often refer to things that are rather accessory in our lives. We talk, for instance, of “comfort food,”‘ referring to the extra fat-and-calorie concoctions that often hearken back to our childhood. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and meat loaf. These items make us smile because we see them as things we revert to when we are feeling somewhat sorry for ourselves. So the boss yelled at work, or the teenagers won’t stop the games they play with their parents, or we were stuck in traffic longer than we wanted. A little bit of consolation – yes, I’ll have the extra piece of apple pie, with cheese, thank you!
We also think of comfort when referring to extra luxurious things. Can someone buy a mattress today and not get the “extra plush” for “extra comfort”? Oh, yes, I’ll have a comforter to go with my comfortable mattress. Or we love a certain hotel chain because it spoils us in little ways: nice terry cotton robes to snuggle up into after we’ve come back from the sauna. Some with an extra sweet tooth might even sip a little Southern Comfort now and then. Why should we be uncomfortable when a little shift in the thermostat or a few extra calories can make us feel so comfy?
Perhaps more rarely in life we get well beyond our comfort zones to something very different – areas that are not accessories to our lives but levels that cut down to the bone. These are times when we feel desperate – without hope, literally, and are looking for simple reassurance. This almost always happens when serious illness comes into our lives. Beyond the physical discomfort (or even pain), there’s a personal distance that surrounds the illness. We are cut off from people that we love, people that we need, or even people in general. And we’ll do anything to have someone touch us, hold our hands, place a reassuring hand on our shoulders, or lift us from the depths into which we’ve sunk.
Affliction tears us from a sense of rootedness. It pulls us out of our regular surroundings. Suddenly we feel alone, cornered, hurt, scared; suddenly we feel there is not sure way out. Comfort reverses just these feelings: the one who comforts assures us we are not alone, shows us a way out, rubs salve into open wounds, and lends her or his strength to the afflicted one.
If any of us have been in a hospital, dealing with a semi-serious and frightening illness, we know how important the hospital staff becomes. And not just the doctors with their stethoscopes. Often the orderlies and even the cleaning staff throw us a smile, or move a table closer, or ask us how we are feeling, or just make a simple gesture in our direction which breaks down the distance and isolation we’ve been feeling. Suddenly we no longer feel alone. Suddenly a bridge has been built out of our misery and fear toward another human.
Anyone who has worked in prisons knows the various levels of affliction that happen there. Not only are prisoners removed from any kind of personal support (family, friends, often even clergy); they also have to navigate a system in which they are preyed upon. We often hear how this is an implied part of the punishment—the gang violence, the brutality, even the sexual threat—which only adds to the punishment that society feels prisoners deserve. The growth of prisoners in the United States is geometrically out of proportion to the imprisonment held in other countries, even those, like China, that we associate with non-respect for human life.
Add to general prison life those (unfortunately growing) numbers of people who receive solitary confinement as an enhancement to their regular punishment. Confined to small cells for twenty-three hours a day, overhearing the sounds of others in similar confinement—often because of mental problems—suffering a crescendo of darkness and loneliness that experts tell us leads to permanent psychological damage.
Imagine ourselves in prison: how every gesture would seem like a miraculous relief: letters received from home, the rare (and outrageously expensive) telephone call, the package with books or magazines, the visit from the chaplain, the class with a visiting professor, the discovery of a true friend who, unlike the others, was not out to exploit the prisoner.
Perhaps more usual in our lives are those moments when life seems to be falling apart: a relationship in disarray, the struggles of a student in first-year college, the fear of a young adult to search for a job, the expression on the lives of parents who just heard their child is gravely ill, the return of a depression we thought we were done with. At moments like these, and so many others, we look around for simple assurance, a simple sign that we are not alone, unloved, out on our own, or without help. Those around us lend an ear, or a hand. They give their time and attention. They listen patiently. They ask us questions to put things in perspective. They pick up a phone and find an answer for our problem.
We know, of course, how God has comforted us. In how many ways has God been strength, comfort, consolation, and guide when we felt we were just lost and had no way to go. How many images have we seen of Jesus in those hours of his captivity? Alone, hands tied, bloody, decorated with thorns, looking outward in a blank gaze. We hear echoes of the biblical book Lamentations: all you who pass by, look at me and see my pain! Think how God has become afflicted for our sake—to show us that even at these moments God is present, that affliction is always transcended by love, that Christ’s affliction has changed the basic calculus of the human heart. Going to the end of our loneliness and death, Christ has shown us the horizon of resurrection.
It’s natural for us to look away when we see pain. We walk by the homeless, we cross the street to avoid those talking to themselves, we put off calling someone we’ve offended, we wait a little longer before making that hospital visit we should make.
God, however, does not look away. His love includes the gaze upon our affliction; his grace brings us the ability to transcend it, to see beyond its confinements, to find hope because, at least, we know we are not alone.
As God does not look away, neither do the merciful, those who, seeing someone afflicted, feel compelled to comfort, to console, to reassure—to be, in short, the heart of God to one who is hurting.