The fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy is to “comfort the sorrowful.” Sometimes it is listed as to “comfort the afflicted.” This description broadens the work just a bit and also fits more with the original notion of the word “comfort,” as we shall consider in a moment.
But of all the spiritual works of mercy, comforting the sorrowful requires the greatest patience, sensitivity, and also silence. This is because sorrow (or grief) often has a life and logic of its own; often it must be allowed to run its course. Sometimes there is not a lot a person can say or do when grief is present. Grief is something we can rarely get around; we must simply go through it. Thus, comforting or consoling the sorrowful and grieving people in our life often involves a kind of silent and understanding accompaniment more so than words or actions. To listen and give understanding attention often provides the greatest value.
St. Augustine once observed that sighs and tears in prayer often accomplish more than words. And so it is that when people are sorrowful, their grief and tears are their prayer and we do well to honor that, rather than to say, “Don’t be sad” or “Cheer up.” A largely silent and respectful silence can be a way of honoring grief and signaling a true camaraderie. St. Paul says, “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Strange though it may seem, a dog often presents a good model, teaching us that when someone is having a bad day, the best thing to do is to just sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
If one notices a person getting “stuck” in his grief, not making the progress of moving through it in stages, more will be needed—but not right away. People need time and room to grieve. Some take longer than others, and there is no single “right” way to grieve. To comfort and console requires a sensitivity on our part that seeks to discover what the person needs, on his terms, not ours. If there are signs of true depression, or a serious lack of progress, this may be an indication that we should become more active in our comforting and consoling, perhaps getting the person out for activities or even recommending professional help.
In terms of caring for the sorrowful, we rightly think of giving comfort in the modern, English sense of the term. However, the word “comfort” in terms of its older, root meaning, involves something more vigorous than merely giving comfort. The Latin roots are cum (with) + fortis (strong, or strength). Thus to comfort someone, in its older etymological roots, means to strengthen him.
In this sense, the word comfort is better paired with the other traditional rendering of this spiritual work of mercy: “comfort the afflicted.” Here, too, “afflicted” in its Latin roots means to be struck down, weakened, or injured. And thus the spiritual work, “comfort the afflicted,” becomes more vigorous. Here is a person who has been struck down, weakened, or ridiculed; to comfort him means in the more literal sense to restore him to strength, to enable him to persevere, to summon him to the courage that strongly resists those who would seek to render him weak or ineffective. This, then, is the vigorous understanding of the fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy, “comfort the sorrowful” or “comfort the afflicted.”
But in either sense, the tender comforting of those who are sorrowful and grief-stricken, or the more vigorous sense of strengthening the afflicted, this is a work of mercy that is restorative of a brother or sister to the normal Christian state of being joyful, confident, and strong.
This song says,
Since we are summoned to a silent place;
Struggling to find the words to fill the space.
Christ be beside us as we grieve;
Daring to doubt or to believe.