The Land of Shadow
The sixth spiritual work of mercy – comforting the afflicted – neatly summarizes the intention and material of the Eucharist, the institution of which we commemorate on this Maundy Thursday. As sinners, we are afflicted: in pain, in trouble, in adversity. The physical substance of the bread and wine becomes spiritual food that comforts the soul of the one who partakes in it. The last full and free act of Christ becomes the model for all service, for the interweaving of corporal and spiritual mercy, and in particular, for relieving the hunger and dousing the thirst of the dry and weary soul.
Comfort: it derives from the Latin com, adding intensity, and fortis, meaning “strength”. To comfort evokes overwhelming consolation, lifting up of the one cast down and treating the one struck low. Such a service resounds as right and proper across wide swaths of our society. This agreement comes about in part because of the work of mercy’s diversity: any issue, any burden, any wrong carried by a certain person or people can be understood through the lens of affliction But the act of comforting the afflicted also has a simplicity to it that makes it accessible, from the innocent concern of a small child on a playground to the outpouring of solidarity in the wake of disaster. It costs nothing to care.
Yet in this rests the roots of the undermining of mercy. Comforting the afflicted can seem so straight-forward and natural that we do not consider it closely or invest in it significantly. Undiscerned words and gestures can bring about more harm than good, and the outpouring of comfort over social media or out of a sense of social pressure rings hollow. True care is never easy; true comfort exerts much energy. For afflictions run deep and complex, and even the afflicted may not know their true source. Comforting without intention and attention dresses a spiritual wound without cleaning it or searching for any remnants of its source.
In truth, comforting the afflicted may be the hardest work of mercy to fully embrace, save perhaps praying for the living and the dead. Few have mastered the art of consolation, and it can only be achieved with much wisdom and experience. For with those bearing the burdens of Frodo, only the comforting of a Sam will do: simple yet perceptive, small yet self-sacrificing, fleeting yet unwavering. Comfort, consolation, and care are not simply actions, but states of being: they are habits, virtues of the heart, gifts from the very core of our being. As as we approach Calvary, we witness this work of mercy glorified: hopeful words to a denier, promise of life to a man near death, an outpouring of love for an afflicted world. We see a mother beside a cross, who ever comforted her son, now comforted in her own turn.
We may never embrace the full wideness of consolation, and never explore the full depths of care. Such limitless expanses need not preventing us from taking up this spiritual work of mercy. For affliction appears all around us, and whatever comfort we can offer slowly transfigures our stony hearts into hearts aflame in love. The journey to Mordor is long, and we must imitate Sam over the long and weary days ahead: slowly, steadily, and simply, give hand, raise up, and walk with.
2015’s Reflection: “On Hell”