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.
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.
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.