Wednesday has rolled around again, and with Wednesday another installment in the ‘works of mercy’. As the Year of Mercy wends its way onwards, it can be difficult to keep it in view—our attention always wants to wander somewhere else, right? But mercy, of course, is not just a subject to ponder for a year and then move on to something else (Coming up next, the Jubilee Year of Prudence!). It is the work of a lifetime to practice the seven corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
And so today we come to the work of comforting the afflicted. What’s this one about? In a sense aren’t all the works of mercy some form of this? Someone is afflicted with hunger or thirst, imprisonment or ignorance or doubt… and is it not a great consolation when someone assuages your need by giving you what you lack?
It certainly is that. But this work of comforting the afflicted in particular pertains to what we can offer people when we cannot, perhaps, offer them any direct assistance for their suffering. Someone who is grieving a death, say. Or suffering from any of the myriad blows that life can deal out—failure, rejection, losses of all kinds.
It is a wonderful thing to put a bowl of hot soup in front of a hungry person and know you are directly filling their need. But sometimes soup alone just doesn’t do it. And what the person really needs is friendship, presence, a compassionate ear, a word of faith or hope.
Comforting the afflicted is about meeting people on that level of personal presence and relationship. It is not directly about fixing the problem—it is about being with the person in the problem so that they know they are not alone in it, which is the greatest comfort possible.
It is a great thing to solve someone’s problem for them, and if it can be done, by all means do it. But so many situations in life either have to work themselves out over time, or require patient waiting on the person to be ready to do what is needed. Or, often, the person really does know what to do and may even by doing all they can, but it doesn’t take the affliction away, not immediately.
Comforting the afflicted is the work that is done ‘in the meantime’. The work done while waiting for the healing to happen, while waiting for the suffering to abate. It is one of the hardest works, because there is so often so little you are able to do for the person, and being present with them and in their life means that you suffer, at least a little, what they are suffering. And this is hard for us poor human beings, who are weak and oftentimes selfish.
What is the comfort we offer people, though. I hope that the people in my life who I try to be present to as they go through hard things know that at least Fr. Denis Lemieux cares about them. I suppose that is some comfort (well, better than nothing, I guess!). But my conviction is that what really consoles us is knowing, through the concrete love and support we receive from other people, that we are not abandoned by God in this affliction.
My own experience of being comforted in my affliction has shown me that the comforter, the one offering friendship and presence in suffering, is a sort of sacrament of God’s merciful steadfast love in the life of the afflicted one. Ultimately it is God who heals our sorrow and removes our affliction; ultimately, even if this problem or that misfortune is removed, it is God who heals the wound of our humanity, the terrible wound that all of us carry within us. And we bring tremendous comfort to one another by simply being that presence of love in one another’s lives, so that Love Himself may come to dwell with us more tangibly.
In short, we need to be willing to be present on Golgotha for one another, to stand at the foot of one another’s crosses, unable to do anything except be there, if we are to journey with the other to the empty tomb, the upper room, the road to Emmaus, the shores of the sea of Galilee, and meet together the one who is Consolation and Joy for all humanity. And that is the great work of mercy that runs through all the works of mercy for all of us.