Comforting the Afflicted
A winter storm of the dreaded type had descended on our town in the deep South. Ice was glossing tree limbs, power lines, and anything else above ground while sleet pelted roads and driveways. I was hoping to get through it all without losing electricity.
As usual, I came down with a pounding migraine caused by the swing in barometric pressure. Piercing pain behind one eye and nausea came along with me. I was glad to call it quits for the day and go to bed early. I wasn’t in the sack for ten minutes when I heard the doorbell. Oh no. I didn’t move. Maybe they’ll go away. It rang again, so I dragged myself up, dressed, and went to the door hoping to send away some kid wanting to shovel my walk.
I opened the door to two men dressed so stereotypically that it seemed paradoxical—cheap sport coats, scuffed shoes, ties loosened around their necks, and raincoats to defend against the chill and dampness. But their eyes said it all. It had been a hard day. I knew what was coming before they said a word; two things had dominated the local news. The disappearance of my neighbor’s teenage son Henry and the discovery of two bodies dumped on the outskirts of town.
One of the men extended his hand holding his police badge.
I didn’t look at it. Nausea now nearly overwhelmed me. “Can you come with us to speak to your neighbor? We have to tell them that one of the bodies found today was their son and then ask them some questions.” Before closing the door I called out into the house for someone to call their pastor. The cold outside matched the icy panic that was building inside of me. No one spoke as we walked next door. I was praying. God help us all.
One of the spiritual works of mercy is to comfort the sorrowful, the afflicted. And, as I discovered on that horrific night, the responsibility to bring Jesus and to be Jesus in the midst of horror and sorrow comes without warning and seldom with preparation. To be sure, there are vocations and jobs in which professional training is provided for such occasions, but I didn’t have it. I felt inadequate and insignificant in view of the unspeakable devastation that my neighbors were about to feel. It didn’t matter how I felt. The knock on the door was the Lord placing me in the situation with only what he would provide.
The origins of this work of mercy is found in the life of Jesus and reported in the Gospels. Throughout his public ministry, Jesus offered comfort to those he encountered and those who sought him out while gripped by deep emotional pain. Jesus comforted the sorrowful, anticipating the resurrection; he often turned sorrow into joy. He raised and restored the widow of Nain her son (Luke 7:11–17), Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–24, 35–43; Luke 8:40–56), and likewise Lazarus to Mary and Martha (John 11:1–44). How I wished on that miserable night that I could do the same.
Instead, my lot was to know my limitations in humility and endure the storm with these parents. To be a sign of hope and—as I hoped would come to me—recall the words of the Gospel. Could I be a sign of the inner mystery of the Trinity, an incarnation of Christ’s presence to the Father in suffering and his comfort to the sorrowful?
Jesus the comforter of the sorrowful was also comforted. His anointing at Bethany may be taken as an occasion in which he was comforted in view of the impending passion. The event is narrated always as close to his death. The synoptic version of the story (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9) places the event in the house of Simon the Leper. The woman who anointed him is not named. She poured costly ointment upon Jesus’ head. The disciples protested that such costly perfume should be sold and the funds given to the poor, no doubt thinking of their ministry that had always been oriented toward relieving the sorrow and discomfort of the poor. But Jesus rebuked them, “[S]he has done a good thing for me…In pouring this perfumed oil upon my body, she did it to prepare me for burial” (Matthew 26:10,12; see Mark 14:6,8). When John relates the story of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, it is in the home of Martha, Mary, and the just-restored Lazarus (John 12:1–8).
“Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair” (John 12:3). As in the synoptic versions, Jesus links the event to his death: “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). The anointing at Bethany indicates that comfort to the sorrowful may be symbolically communicated in a deeply personal act of self-donation. By enduring suffering and joining our sorrow to that of Jesus, we join him in that moment, and in our communion we comfort him. Such is the spirituality and asceticism of many of the saints.
My neighbor’s son was very young when the family moved into the neighborhood. He played in our yard. As we stood in the cold I remembered one day in particular playing football with him when he was only four or five years old, since ours was one of the only flat yards in the neighborhood. But he grew up troubled. His parents had a rocky marriage and gave him toys instead of direction and limits, a motor scooter and then a motorcycle, and finally an expensive van. Months before he was murdered, killed execution style, he sat at our kitchen table and sobbed about how troubled his life was. His beautiful girlfriend held his hand and stroked the hair on the back of his head where a bullet would one day soon take his life. I shared the Gospel with him, told him my own conversion story, and assured him that Jesus would bring him peace and forgiveness for all of the misbehavior for which he was now crying his eyes out. However, he had to break some ties and remove himself from the drug culture in which he was deeply entangled. We prayed together. He hugged me, still weeping.
There is only one occasion in which Jesus requested comfort. This is narrated in the Gospels as that climactic moment when the Last Supper scene is joined to the passion. In the synoptic tradition, Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that upon arriving at the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus became emotionally distraught. Mark dramatizes the scene well: “He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.’ He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him” (Mark 14:33–35). Remain and watch, catchwords for attending to Jesus’ sorrow by their mere presence and prayer. Unfortunately, the disciples failed miserably in their duty, for they fell asleep and detached themselves from Jesus’ agony, leaving him to suffer alone.
Nothing that the disciples could have done would have changed the course of events. Nothing they could have done would mitigate the horrible suffering awaiting Jesus in mere hours. In fact, as Jesus himself had warned them, the disciples themselves, by their abandonment of him, would add to his sorrow. And herein is found one of the first lessons about this work of mercy. To comfort the sorrowful does not mean removing the sorrow, much less restoring what was lost. Rather, it means to be present in and to endure the storm of loss, grief, and pain of the most unimagined kind with those who are suffering. Does it change the circumstances? No, it does not, but it does communicate God’s love and compassion: You are not alone. God is with you. God knows suffering, too.
Walking next door on the sleet-covered sidewalk and driveway slowed our progress enough to pray, to beg for the Spirit’s presence in our weakness. I thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not mine but thy will be done.” We stood before the front door in the dark. Sleet fell with a clicking sound all around us. We looked at one another, and then the detective who showed me his badge said that he would take the lead. He pushed the doorbell.
The door opened and Henry’s father greeted us. The sight confused him. The detective introduced himself and extended his badge. He stated the awful news bluntly in one short sentence and then said, “We have to ask you some questions.” The father winced and let us in the door. He called out for Henry’s mother. When she heard that her son was dead, standing right in front of me, she crumpled into my arms, wailing and crying. There were no words, just sounds. After the initial shock, there was mayhem, the irrationality of a mind that refused to acknowledge the worst. Both of Henry’s parents ran through the house calling his name as if they could find him, as if calling his name would raise him from the dead. The father grabbed me and sobbed, let me go and went to his wife to hold her. Then there was more running from room to room calling Henry’s name. If they could only hear his voice, the voice of a beloved child, say, “Here I am, Mom. Here I am, Dad.” But there was no response, only their own voices calling out in the void.
It was at about this time that their pastor showed up wearing a dark blue suit pulled over his pajama shirt and pants. He, too, had been dragged from bed. His pastoral presence was felt immediately. I was glad he was there since I was feeling depleted. I remember that neither one of us said many words. It was our physical presence that made any difference at all. The grief gripped them for what seemed an eternity of madness. Then the detectives went to work, pulling them to the couch for questioning as they tried to rein in the tears. That is when the gruesome details of his murder were revealed.
A lesson conveyed in the scene of the Agony in the Garden is that to comfort the sorrowful means to have entered into and to have embraced Christ’s own suffering oneself, to join Jesus in his own torment as we accept and live through the sorrows that life brings, consecrating ourselves to him body and soul, joining our tears to his own and to his purposes. No amount of suffering prepares or qualifies one to be a comforter to others, for the work of mercy is an outpouring of Christ to others through us, not merely one’s ability to identify with another’s pain empathetically or sympathetically.
This work of mercy is not a “been there, done that” type of communication. Rather, the work is virtue in action, communicating Jesus and his own suffering to the sorrowful. We are able to comfort others because we know deeply Jesus’ suffering and his comfort toward us in our own suffering.