The sixth spiritual work of mercy is “comfort the afflicted.” I’m sure we all know individuals and families who are suffering from one kind of affliction or another — a physical, moral, spiritual, emotional or mental condition which causes much pain and suffering. We want to comfort these people, but wonder how to do it. I think it’s always tempting to start giving advice, which is easy to do if it’s not your problem. But a lot of people don’t want advice, and tend to resent it when it’s offered. It’s also tempting to fall back on pat answers like “God has a plan,” “It could be worse,” “This too will pass,” “Offer it up.” These are well-meaning – and often true – but not very comforting. They tend to dismiss too easily the pain and suffering which accompany serious afflictions — and again, people often resent them. So to comfort the afflicted, I think, means mostly to accompany them along the journey — to walk through hell with them, as it were — to be present, to listen compassionately, to share the experience as best we can, to join their suffering to our own. Sometimes we can help them identify options, if their condition is such that there are options. But sometimes there are no options, and there is nothing anyone can do to “fix” the problem or remove the affliction. Then maybe the best thing we can do is to help the afflicted learn how to pray in a radically different way.
Comfort the Afflicted
“I have often listened to people who are experiencing difficult and painful situations … They come to complain and ask these questions: ‘Why? Why?’ … And I say, ‘Continue to pray just like this, because this is a prayer.’ It was a prayer when Jesus said to his father: ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ … It is prayer in times of darkness, in those moments of life that seem hopeless, where we cannot see the horizon … ” “… [S]o many people … are in the same situation … So many good people … do not understand what has happened to them, or why … [They wonder] ‘But Lord, I have believed in you … Is believing in you a curse?’” Jesus walked this path: from sunset on the Mount of Olives to the last word from the cross: ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’” — Pope Francis, in a homily on June 5, 2013
Pope Francis once said in a homily that lamenting is a perfectly acceptable form of prayer. It’s a form of prayer common to Job and numerous other Old Testament prophets, and it’s basically a way of saying out loud what we are feeling inside: O God, Why me? Why this? Lamenting, the pope explained, is the kind of prayer that comes from the heart in those moments of life that seem hopeless, where we cannot know the future. In one sense, lamenting expresses our disappointment and hopelessness; but in another, it expresses our confidence and trust in the one who knows our desperation. I think many of us are so accustomed to praying for things to get better, for a miracle that fixes everything, that we don’t know how to pray when things can’t be fixed. Affliction and lamentation reduce us to a kind of silence which, in its own way, is a kind of prayer too. There in the wordless silence, we encounter a profound truth which is at the heart of every prayer – the conviction that God is already at work, fixing what needs to be fixed, in God’s own way and in God’s own time.
What do you think? Learn More Find references and resources at Facebook.com/FaithLeadersCorner/. Pray and Reflect Use one or more of the following questions for personal reflection, group discussion or private journaling: • On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) rate how you respond to affliction — your own or others’. How would you have responded five years ago? • Questions for children: How do you try to help people when they are sad or suffering? • Questions for families/classrooms: How do we become more aware of each other’s problems and respond to them? • Questions for adults: What are the afflictions in your own life? Who are the people in your life who are suffering from afflictions of one kind or another? What have you learned about living with afflictions or accompanying another who suffers affliction? Have you tried lamenting as a form of prayer? • I think the best way to comfort someone suffering affliction is … Join the Conversation Add your comments to this week’s discussion at Facebook.com/FaithLeadersCorner/.
Dave Cushing is director of adult faith formation for the Catholic parishes in Waterloo. The Disciple’s Corner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Office of Faith Formation and Education and is funded through the Archdiocesan Educational Development Board. It is designed to help catechists, teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults grow in their appreciation of their role as disciples of Jesus Christ.