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Comfort the Sorrowful – A Consideration of the Fourth Spiritual Work of Mercy

May 19, 2015
Saint Peter Weeping in the Presence of the Sorrowful Mother by Guercino, 1647.

Saint Peter Weeping in the Presence of the Sorrowful Mother by Guercino, 1647.

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.

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  1. Peter Wolczuk says:

    “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.”
    Consider Job 2:11-13. This has, for quite some time now, struck me as a fine example of the initial support to a grieving person as the friends sat, with Job, “…for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.” NIV
    How long does the example seem to suggest we sit in silence? Well, it was seven days and seven nights, in Job’s case, but may differ in other cases. At the beginning of the third chapter Job opened his mouth and that was an indicatro of when. And what does he say? Cursing the day of his birth which is an irrational statement. Was he becoming irrational or; acknowledging the irrational state which his great grief had driven him to. Dealing with the irrational by facing it and, doing so with the help of objective friends who wait until the appropriate time for him to listen. But, not in his own mind which has been driven to a temporary irrational state by unusual, to him, circumstances. What is unusual and confusing to one may be, or may not be, unusual to others. When do people try to solve the problem/challenge of grieving, in their own confused and irrational, mind? When someone tries to, “Don’t be sad’ or ‘Cheer up.” as referenced in the example of St. Augustine? I think so.
    Another example that comes to me is in Luke 22:43 where our Saviour is praying between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” NIV
    Why would He need strengthening? He’s the only begotten Son of God and, is God in the form of One of the Trinity. Well, He has come to the beginning of the end of His three years where a few words would metaphorically kick the feet out from under the statements of His persecutors. Where healing miracles astounded as they appeared in acknowledgement of those who had faith. One miracle left before the Crucifixion and the Resurrection where the severed ear was restored. Matthew 26:51 Mark 14:47 Luke 22:50 John !8:10 & 18:26. In all four gospels, seemingly in significance for is twice in the mystical disciple’s state-ing-ment of.
    And the angel? Serving the interest of the grieving one? Surely not a supporter of hiding from his own discomfort of spiritual and emotional pain (by falseley cheering up) – as I have personally done (in erroneous) before learning of proper support of grief. Not that an angel would need to hide as such but showing that, not need, as an example of serving the afflicted.

    • Peter Wolczuk says:

      And I thought that I’d proof read so well. Correct “… acknowledging the irrational state which his great grief had driven him to.” to “… acknowledging the irrational state which his great grief had driven him to?” Is a question.

  2. Brian says:

    Another high quality article as usual. In the Book of Job, his friends sat on the ground for several days with him, and no one spoke a word. They understood this work of mercy! Thanks Mons.

  3. one anonymous says:

    when i am trodden down
    come hold my hand
    when i am weary lost to life
    when hours pass from day to night
    come hold my hand
    and sing to me a song so low
    in quiet stirrings do not let go
    come hold my hand

  4. Tom Perna says:

    Thanks, Monsignor. I lost my Dad one month ago today. Plus, the family dog died in January and I went through a relationship/engagement break-up at the beginning of January. To say that the first part of 2015 has been rough is an understatement. I enjoyed reading this article.

  5. Richard Connell says:

    I listened to this podcast yesterday that had this phrase: emotionally available. At the time, I thought it was comical and considered texting my brother and thanking him for being ’emotionally available’. I restrained myself. The phrase is, though, a reasonable, if awkward, description of ‘weeping with those who weep’. This article also pointed out that some oncologists will find themselves, in the course of a career, being obliged to deliver bad news as many as 20,000 times, if I recall correctly. There used to be, and maybe there still are, weeping women who go to wakes and such and help people to weep who should be weeping, but don’t realize it or are unable to. People, I think, use recorded music and melodramas for that now, and sometimes weep when they have no reason to weep.

  6. Richard Connell says:

    This is one of my favorite feel sad songs: Tom Waits Cold cold Ground ORIGINAL HIQ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmrGImjmUZk

  7. a catholic psychologist says:

    There is a case to be made that psychotherapy is a lite-version of one or more spiritual works of mercy. Comforting the sorrowful is a case in point, and goes by the name of grief counseling or “companioning.” One major difference between psychotherapy and spiritual mercy works is that there is in psychotherapy no direct referencing or appeal to God’s mystery, protection, providence, mercy, or forgiveness; all factors that are central to any spiritual work of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy are much richer than psychotherapy, and are more efficacious, but, they require of the recipient spirits of humility and subordination—spirits that are not much in evidence in most psychotherapies.

  8. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Big appreciation for the thanks. Thank you from me too Monsignor, for inspiration to broaden my viewpoint.

  9. Maureen says:

    This struck home with me. I each college courses required for those who want to go to medical school, and often find myself giving comfort to those who are not doing as well as they’d hoped. I also see some with personal problems. I often weep with my students or just let them sit in silence in my often as we decide what the options are. I consider this an important part of my “job.”

  10. Theresa says:

    Thank you for this. It is very timely and beautiful.