True Consolation

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet 2 November 1996, p. 1437.

On All Souls Day (November 2) we remember the people we love and who are no longer with us. John Wijngaards of Housetop Centre in London reflects on the source of Christian comfort.

In my life as a priest I come across a lot of suffering: children who mourn a much loved parent, an affectionate woman who has never found a suitable partner, elderly people who are lonely and confused, patients who endure excruciating pain. People cry out for support and it is so difficult to meet their genuine need. The temptation is to mouth words of comfort which are just “empty nothings” (Job 21,34). Stock phrases, whether from common sense or the Bible, have a hollow ring. Philosophers and preachers alike turn out to be “miserable comforters” (Job 16,2).

I have always been intrigued by a passage in Paul that begins as follows: ”The Father of mercies and the God of all consolation consoles us in our affliction. Thus God enables us to console others who are afflicted as we are, with the same consolation we receive from God” (2 Cor 1,3-4). The text both inspires and exasperates me. Paul seems so sure of himself, so confident that he knows how to give comfort. What have we lost that the Early Christians seem to have taken for granted? Will we be able to replicate their religious convictions with equal unquestioning assurance?

A hundred years ago, anaesthetics as we know it today did not exist. Opium was used as a painkiller. It is in this sense that we have to understand Karl Marx’s frequently misquoted observation : “Religion is the opium of the people”. Marx witnessed first hand how working class families came to terms with grinding poverty and its devastating effects: they turned to popular religion. To the unemployed who might see their wives waste away with TB and their children starve, the local Gospel hall with its rousing sermons and heart-warming hymn singing brought welcome consolation. Psychological research proves Marx right as far as the consoling power of religion is concerned, but does this prove its substance?

Bereavement studies on parents who have lost a child, show unequivocally that, also in our own time, religion helps people cope. Parents with a personal faith in God adjust better to the loss.Belief in God helps parents overcome an unavoidable sense of failure and guilt. Believing parents report fewer difficulties of sleep disorder, nightmares, anxiety states and substance abuse. Religion works wonders as a painkiller, but can it satisfy the skepticism of sophisticated believers such as we have become?

Many of us, I am afraid, feel shy of bringing religion into a social climate in which, for all practical purposes, the God-topic is tabu. We accommodate to the secular expectation of grim self sufficiency. No wringing of hands, no fuss, just a dogged pursuit of happiness in the face of inevitable losses and ultimate extinction, as Bertrand Russell recommends. Are we not thinking beings whose prime consolation lies in our power of reason? Interestingly enough, it was an approach already advocated in Paul’s time.

The craft of comforting

Consolation was a topic seriously studied by Paul’s contemporaries. Not unlike the secular gurus of our own time, the Hellenists of Paul’s world ascribed all misfortune to a cruel game of chance, the whims of Fate to which gods and humans were equally subject. At least thirty Greek and Roman writings of Paul’s time set out strategies on how to offer comfort to friends and relatives facing suffering or loss. There is a remarkable similarity in the advice they offer, whether we read Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, or for that matter Russell, Klemke or Baier. Misfortune, they tell us, should be met with wisdom because we are rational creatures who can overcome our pain by reasoning things out. In other words, philosophy is the recipe prescribed. “The study of wisdom will heal your wound”, Seneca writes to his distressed mother. “It will root out your sadness. It will comfort you. It will cheer you. If in earnest it gains entrance to your mind, never more will sorrow enter there.”

A litany of truisms fills the classic armoury of consolation. “Things could have been worse”. “Your own small suffering bears no comparison to that of others”. “Count your blessings”. “Crying serves no purpose. Realise you cannot escape the slings and arrows of Fate”. These are the arguments of cold comfort one still hears today in a plethora of modern variations. But while reason can play a part in our coming to terms with pain and loss, it cannot heal suffering. And arguments held out to us by others often increase our pain.

Suffering is a terrible reality. It is always personal and unique. Arguments offered in consolation underrate the pain and sorrow experienced by the other. If someone has lost a dear companion in life, the worst thing we can do is to deny the reality of the loss with philosophical belittlement. “Your husband has passed away but you still have your children. What is more, he could have suffered so much more. Remember what happened to so-and-so!” Such well intentioned words have the effect of denying and undervaluing the full weight of someone else’s suffering. They push the other person into even greater suffering, because now the sadness is to be carried alone, unrecognised as an unspeakable and unrepeatable grief.

Silence

Paul was a Jew and as a Jew was not likely to make this kind of mistake. To safeguard the sacredness of personal grief, the Rabbis dissuaded friends from giving consolation to a family which had been recently bereaved. “Do not comfort the mourning as long as the dead person lies before you”. Though one was urged to accompany the mourner at home as well as in the street, one was told to avoid words of consolation before the funeral.

Even today, during the traditional seven days of Jewish mourning, friends and relatives visit the bereaved home to “sit shiv” and pray. Often they embrace the mourners in silence and sit with them in silence, like Job’s friends who sat on the ground with him “seven days and seven nights without speaking a word to him. For they understood: his sadness was beyond limit” (Job 2,13). One only speaks, if the mourner wishes to speak. Such a silent sharing in suffering which leaves condolences till later or even unspoken, shows a remarkable sensitivity to human suffering. It correctly identifies our supportive presence as the only true consolation. And the greatest consoling presence is God himself.

Paul, as we have seen, claims that God, “the Father of mercies and God of all consolation”, consoled him so that he, in turn, could console others. By implication it would then seem that religious assurances are an exception to the rule. Human words will fail, God’s words bring consolation. Or do they?

Experience shows that, for some believers, the thought of God does not alleviate grief. Rather, it angers, depresses and alienates them. The reason is not difficult to find. The image of the standard Manager God hardly inspires confidence. In this conception it is God, after all, who is held personally responsible for the ordeal. He ordained our sickness “to test us like fire in a furnace” (Wis 3,6). It was God’s will that our loved one met with an accident, because God freely gives life or kills, heals or wounds (Deut 32,39). Sometimes God is even believed to be the Avenger who inflicts disasters on sinners, from incurable disease to financial ruin (Lev 26,14-39). Who would turn to this God to find consolation?

Generations of Christians have, indeed, learnt to squeeze some comfort even from this inscrutable Designer God. “God knows best.” “God has some special purpose in all this.” “God gives and God takes.” But this was so, I believe, because they instinctively knew and trusted another side in God: his compassionate love. And this is what Paul is talking about.

Presence

When Paul wrote about God consoling him, he had just undergone serious trouble in Ephesus. He had been dragged before a people’s tribunal and had been subsequently beaten and thrown into prison. He had been blamed by fellow Christians for taking risks. He had felt hungry, depressed, alone. But in his moments of darkness he had known God was there, with him, giving him strength. God had proved to be “the God of endurance and encouragement” (Rom 15,5).

Paul’s experience was that God had revealed himself in Jesus Christ to be a “God with us”, a God who is on our side, a God who knows our suffering because he shares it with us. Jesus himself was deeply upset when he stood before Lazarus’ tomb. He wept (Jn 11,35). In Jesus, God himself endured the agony in Gethsemani and cried out in mortal anguish from the cross. It is this suffering God, not the Manager God, who proves to be a Father of mercies and a God of all consolation.

In our own suffering Christ suffers. In our victories Christ wins. Paul sums up Christian life as knowing the power of Christ and his resurrection: by sharing in Christ’s suffering and becoming like Christ in our death, we will rise victoriously as he has done (Phil 3,10). “By means of my sufferings I am making up for what is still lacking in the sufferings of Christ for his body, the Church” (Col 1,24). “Just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ” (2 Cor 1,5).

I am not suggesting for a moment that quoting such verses from Paul will bring comfort to people today. Quoting from Scripture often comes across as just another piece of jargon. What I am saying is that Paul tells us where real consolation lies: in God’s presence at our side, right in the middle of suffering.

Words remain words, however wise their content and however sacred their source. It is our staying with the suffering and sorrowful that counts. The things we do to support, the time we spend, the clasp of our hand, the space we give the other to feel and express his or her grief, bring more consolation than anything we will say.

God too offers comfort in silence. It is God’s invisible presence that impinges on our awareness and gives us strength. “Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. You are with me. Your rod and your staff give me comfort” (Ps 23,4). God who is Love itself knows our suffering. In the depth of our sorrow, God shares our pain and despair. “Look, I am with you always” (Mt 28,20).

We live in a time in which the agnostic isolation of sufferers has been institutionalised. Amphetamines and morphine dull our pain. The poor, the elderly and the dying are moved out of sight. We witness suffering from a safe distance – on TV. The existential questions arising out of suffering: why? wherefore? why me? what next? are suppressed. “Don’t think about death.” “Make the best of the life you have.” “Grow up and take things as they come.”

Marx correctly identified religion as an attempt to come to terms with the enigma of life and death. “Religion is a protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of an unspiritual situation.” As Christians we believe that God himself is the deepest source of the human cry for meaning. In Jesus Christ that cry became a tangible presence, God’s response made flesh, God’s love shown in deeds, God’s full identification with our human suffering and guarantee of ultimate victory.We continue to feel that incarnate presence in us through the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel calls this Spirit of Christ the Paraclete, the “Consoler”. It is the Consoler in us who affirms our search for fulfilment as an autonomous and lovable person, the Consoler who holds us in a loving embrace through all trials and losses. The Spirit cradles, feeds, heals, mends, cares and soothes. The Spirit is the God of complete and utter consolation.