Last week, I had an earache. You nod briefly. Okay. Duly noted. Earache. Can we get on to the article?
I reply, “You don’t get it. Last week I had an earache.” I don’t mean, “Little twingy pain, like a headache or a sore toe.” I mean “Worst and Most Excruciating Pain I Have Felt in Three Decades.” Up there with the Great Wisdom Tooth Agony of ’78. Worse than the Line Drive to the Groin of ’69. We’re talking debilitating anguish here. Unable to function or think levels of pain. I didn’t know it was possible to hurt that much from a simple infection to the ear canal. I will never forget it. It makes me marvel at how the human race could survive without going stark mad in the absence of the blessed gifts of ciprofloxacin and hydrocodone and ibuprofen (all thanks be to God for these marvelous gifts!)
I mentioned my agonies on my blog (because sitting was less excruciating than laying down at 5:00 one morning so I blogged to keep my mind off the eye-watering pain). Lot of people replied with lots of kind offers of prayer. And they did something else: they did what they could to comfort me. Some offered home remedies for earache. Others with a medical background made various recommendations. Many, interestingly, commiserated by sharing their own stories of ear anguish. It was all as natural as breathing—and as curious when you think about it. Not the prayers and tips (both are attempts to help bring relief). But the notion that shared suffering is somehow comforting—which, strangely, it is.
Why is it we feel compelled, when we can do nothing else, to tell the afflicted of our similar afflictions? And why are we comforted by hearing tales of others who have endured what we are enduring? The fact that somebody else once howled in agony with their earache should not, it would seem, make me feel any better. Indeed, by a certain logic, it should only make me feel worse—for them. But in fact, there is something comforting about knowing others have felt what we feel in our pain and, conversely, there is something offensive and uncomforting when those who have not “been there” presume to stoop down and offer free advice on dealing with suffering while never having to leave their air conditioned office.
At the same time, this sort of identity politics will only get you so far in dealing with suffering. Because at the end of the day, what actually healed my earache was not the empathy of others who had been there. It was a competent physician who, while he may never have had an earache in his life, certainly knew what was wrong with my ear and knew which drugs to prescribe to kill the bacteria and give me relief from the pain. That doesn’t mean empathy is worthless. It means that there is more than one dimension to comforting the afflicted. Identification with the sufferer is great. God did it with us when he sent his only begotten Son to identify with us in our sufferings. As Hebrews says:
[W]e see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. (Hebrews 2:9-18)
It is properly priestly to let one’s suffering act as a sort of mediating agent between the sufferings of Christ crucified and the sufferings of our neighbor. As St. Paul says, God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer” (2 Corinthians 1:4-6).
But there is also a danger in this. For we can take our status as victims of suffering (from cancer, racism, poverty, sexism, or whatever) and turn it away from a connection with Christ Crucified and into the source of our identity. When we do that, we become idolators and can quickly descend into a particularly silly sort of sin which declares that only members of the approved victim class have any right to speak to matters affecting the common good. And so we see the absurdity of people saying that only women can address abortion, only soldiers can discuss the justice of a war, only gay people can talk about gay marriage, only terminally ill people can talk about euthanasia, etc. This is, quite simply, nonsense. When I want treatment for earache, I don’t want somebody who had an earache to treat me. I want somebody who knows how to treat an earache. When I want to rightly order human society, I want to consult with the human race, and especially with those who have the relevant knowledge close to the specific problem, not with an isolated grievance group with a parochial agenda. I want Tradition and, more than that, I want Sacred Tradition, because it gives God’s perspective as well as that of millions of ordinary schlubs down through the ages.
This is part of the genius of the Catholic tradition when it comes to comforting the afflicted. On the one hand, it’s really good to hear from fellow human beings who have suffered. You come away reassured that, if they could make it, so can you. It is even more comforting to know that God the Son has not only endured greater suffering and won through to resurrection, promising that same grace and power to us, if we will stay with him. But here’s the paradox: the other part of the comfort is the strange doctrine that God the Father is “impassible”. That is, he is not subject to suffering or affliction and cannot be moved by the emotions that move us.
That seems contradictory. Doesn’t it contradict what I just said about the bureaucrat without experience sitting in a far off room? Strangely no. Because comfort comes not merely of knowing that others have suffered as you have, but that they have come through their suffering to the place where “the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). In our affliction, what we want is not only to have somebody beside us, but to know that there is someplace where all this pain and horror loses its power. Sam Gamgee is a comfort to Frodo in his affliction because he stands beside him and even carries him in the struggle across the Plains of Gorgoroth to Mount Doom. But Sam’s comfort comes when he realizes there is some place where the troubles of this world cannot reach:
Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.
The good news of the “impassibility” of God is like that. There is a perfect happiness in God that the devil cannot ever harm or even touch. To be sure, God Incarnate “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Yet the miracle of the thing is that God the Son himself for the joy that was set before him—the joy of the impassible Father who is pure happiness—endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (cf. Hebrews 12:2). Something in our nature conforms to this. We are comforted in our affliction by shared suffering. But we require, as well, the anchor of hope that there is, somewhere, a place above cloud-wrack where we shall find the joy that is not—and cannot—be touched by the suffering we face here. It is exactly that paradox that moves St. Paul to remind us, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Of course, there are all sorts of affliction in the world, and many of the other corporal works of mercy are directed to relieving them. Starvation, thirst, sickness, nakedness and death are, among many others, forms of human affliction that the other works of mercy directly address. Which begs the question: why a separate work of mercy which seems to recapitulate all the other works of mercy?
I think the secret lies in the fact that comforting the afflicted is a spiritual work of mercy. This makes exactly the point that the Jesus makes in countering the devil (and the entire naturalistic bent of the present age): Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. True affliction is not, in the end, bodily affliction. It is spiritual. We can endure incredible hardship physically if we are secure in the love of God, the hope of heaven, and faith of Jesus Christ. This has been demonstrated countless times in the crucible of human history and the laboratory of the saints. Conversely, as every rich, famous, powerful and glamorous suicide in the world attests, a material world filled with everything the devil offers is, in the end, weary, stale, flat and unprofitable. Macbeth, the Big Darwinian Winner in the purely materialistic struggle for power and survival summarizes what the universe looks like to those who gain the world and lose their own soul:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The sleek, fat, and wealthy man of comfort who is tormented in spirit is more afflicted than a man who has lost both his legs, but who remains secure in the love of Christ Crucified. He requires a comfort that nothing in this world can supply. And his doom, should he refuse repentance, is that he has made himself into a thing that no such comfort will ever reach. This is one of the reasons that the hard task of the Comforter known as the Holy Spirit is often to afflict the comfortable before comforting the afflicted. From Saul of Tarsus to Hans Frank to Charles Colson to Karla Faye Tucker to Fr. John Corapi, the Christian tradition is chockablock with stories of men and women who were supremely secure in their pride and who needed to be painfully taken apart down to the foundations and rebuilt by God. Indeed, in them, we are only seeing the truth about ourselves. For we who may not have committed sins so grave or risen in the world to such great heights that our fall was so shattering—we are nonetheless creatures who required nothing less than the horror and anguish of the Passion of the Son of God in order to redeem. That God has favored us with the grace of a quiet life of unspectacular ordinariness is, to be sure, entirely due to His grace and not to the fact that we are just better and nicer than those Bad Sinners were. Truly, there but for the grace of God go we.
That said, it is important to remember that, while admonishing sinners is certainly one of the works of mercy, the subject here is comforting the afflicted. There is something in us that sometimes like to invert these two imperatives. It is called “cowardice”. There’s a sort of mob mentality that can take over and spur us to admonish the afflicted and comfort the sinner, especially the wealthy and powerful sinner. Everybody’s seen it. It’s the sort of mentality that tells the grieving child who just lost her dolly that if she wasn’t so irresponsible none of this would have happened. It’s the mentality of the Holocaust denier who says, “It never happened and besides, they deserved it.” It’s the sort of thinking that is filled with weepy excuses for the rich men who offered free toasters to poor and uneducated people to come on in and take that unsustainable loan, and excoriates the poor (and often badly educated) suckers who assumed the banks knew what they were doing. There’s something wrong with a civilization that sees more affliction in the sufferings of bank presidents than in people living in their cars.
This brings us to a tricky question, of course: namely, who are the afflicted? Jesus answered this question for all time in one of the most outrageously offensive parables he ever told. The reason it doesn’t offend us is that we no longer share the intense tribal affiliations, historical grievances and hostilities of his audience, so we can afford to be generous and snicker at those silly prejudiced Jews of the first century Judea and their thick-headedness. Retold, in modern terms, it would go something like this:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “An American medical worker was going down from Kabul to the Afghan-Iranian border, and he fell among Taliban, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance an American military contractor was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Republican congressman on a fact-finding mission, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a member of Al-Quaida, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two American dollars and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise. (Luke 10:25-37, Revised Shea Paraphrase)
The Jews to whom Jesus spoke had every bit as much reason to hate Samaritans as Americans have to hate Al-Quaida. The bitter ethnic and religious loathing ran deep, with real stories of real outrages committed against Jews just as we have suffered real outrages committed by Al Quaida. And yet, Jesus overlooks the many examples of heroic goodness in Israel’s history and the many real sins and evils of the Samaritans and constructs this story in order to make his point. Why?
Precisely because his purpose is nothing less than to reveal the radically Catholic nature of his revelation. He’s not kidding when he tells us his project of redemption is to extend to the whole world, including Samaritans—and Al Quaida. He’s not kidding when he commands us to look past the easy labels and shibboleths and tribal identity badges and recognize, not only that we are capable of evil as great as Saul of Tarsus, Hans Frank, and Karla Faye Tucker, but that those whom we have assumed to be irredeemable animals are capable of responding to grace. In a word, that our neighbor is every person we meet.
The Church’s historic response to affliction of both body and soul is notoriously indiscriminate and profligate. From the medieval tradition of sanctuary (which protected people from mob violence times without number), to the invention of the hospital and the establishment of the great system of charitable works on the planet, to such initiatives as Doctors without Borders, to the massive impact of Mother Teresa’s care for the poorest of the poor, and, of course, in the miracle of the sacrament of confession, the relief of the afflictions of body (and much more, of spirit) has been the work of the Body of Christ down through the ages. All this, of course, is compounded with the reality of sin, so that many afflictions of body and soul have been caused by Christians as well as alleviated by them. But the Tradition remains what it is, however well or poorly we carry it out.
Nor is the comfort of the afflicted the exclusive property of the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course. As Jesus’ Good Samaritan illustrates, comforting the afflicted is not a work that is only performed by the people whom we perceive to be visible members of the people of God. This ought to be a source of hope for us as Christians, because it brings to life the truth of what Jesus says in the parable of the sheep and the goats: namely, that the proof of our obedience to Jesus is not in our yakkity yak, but in our obedience. We have good cause to hope that the one who lives by love according to the light he has received will hear from Jesus “inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” (even when they just thought they were doing what any decent person would do.”
Meanwhile, the main task to attend to is not peering into the soul of our neighbor and speculating about what his verdict might be at the Judgment. Instead, it is to attend to our own business and to comfort the afflicted as best we can. Unhappily, these are not hard to find. “The mass of men,” said Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” Begin wherever you are and you can scarcely avoid running into all manner of affliction of body and soul. How to comfort the sufferer? All that we have just considered points the way.
Comforting the afflicted is the work of the king, prophet, and priest, especially by virtue of our baptism. The corporal works of mercy are the key if the affliction is physical. In this we see the kingly office exercised profoundly to rightly order the world and its resources—food, medicine, shelter, physical, emotional, social, spiritual care—in the service of human need. Practical common sense and empathy are crucial. But the Christian must also remember that there is always more than the merely material to the human person. The prophet speaks to that, sometimes in encouragement and sometimes in rebuke (especially if we are seeking to comfort ourselves by means of idols such as drugs, money, sex, or power). But in particular, our task is priestly here. We stand alongside the sufferer as Christ crucified stands alongside us. We emphasize the compassion—the “suffering with”—of God the Son. But we also point to God the impassible Father, the star above the cloud-wrack that enshrouds this world of pain. We remind the afflicted one that there is a hope and a joy untouchable by all the pain the devil can throw at us, and that it will be ours in Christ Jesus.
This means, in the end, that our work of comforting the afflicted is rooted in every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. For that is where our kingly, prophetic, and priestly office finds its profound source and fulfillment. When we offer prayer on behalf of the afflicted in our lives, we bear them to God the Impassible Father via Christ Crucified. When we receive the Eucharist and pray through it for the afflicted in our lives, we bear nothing less than the hope of heaven to every sufferer. We may not see how or whether that grace comes to fruition, but the reality and power are there in Christ Jesus.
(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).