“Take comfort, my people” (Is 40:1) is a common enough phrase during the Advent season, but there is no reason why this divine directive should be limited to that time of year. In fact, given the growing anxieties all around us — familial concerns, psychological distress, economic difficulties, even the little earthquakes in our parishes and local churches — perhaps looking at the real meaning of the words will guide us in our response to the present moral chaos.
It must be acknowledged that the word “comfort” as it is understood today is a far cry from what it has historically meant, and the meaning that most closely tracks with the Biblical usage. We’re most familiar with the adjective that conveys a state of ease, with freedom from distress or pain. A comfortable chair comes to mind, or spiffy high-tech sneakers. Comfort has also come to be associated with relaxation, and advertisements for deep tissue massages, meditation apps, and pristine beaches abound, packaging comfort as anything from a new bed to the perfect getaway. But is this the sort of comfort on offer from God? Are we to flee anxiety with exotic holidays or mattress upgrades?
The root of the word is fortis, which means “strong.” Together with the prefix, originally cum, which means ”with,” someone properly comforted is someone who has been offered strength. If we think of the ways of comforting those in distress, whether from grief, illness, loss, or some form of anxiety, we know that distractions are not helpful in the long run. However well intentioned, they only forestall the eventual project of dealing with a specific problem — and which may be exacerbated by every delay.
What is true comfort? In sum, it must be the truth — the truth about our human condition, how we stand before our Creator, the obstacles to peace, and the channels of grace. God has made certain specific promises about our destiny, and our hope in these promises must always be nourished in prayer. We are admonished to persevere in this hope until the end, not to give in to distractions when the journey becomes difficult. While acknowledging the benefits of a good night’s sleep, our real strength is in the Lord, and He is the source of sufficient grace to thrive even amongst the challenges all around us.
Well over a century ago, Cardinal Newman warned that our material comforts would eventually discourage us from praying and trusting in God. “The most obvious danger which worldly possessions present to our spiritual welfare is that they become practically a substitute in our hearts for that one object to which our supreme devotion is due. They are present; God is unseen. They are means at hand of effecting what we want.” Yet, it is that constant devotion to the Author of Life that will provide the surest solace in all circumstances.
We often look for the quickest fix, especially when we see those we love suffering, or when we ourselves find a situation unbearable. Truth be told, the greatest saints were forged in such suffering by turning to Scripture and the sacraments, and by undertaking works of mercy. Never will you read of a true saint who assuaged his sorrow in material comforts or frothy distractions — rather, saints crawled their way through their trials, conversing with God, reaching out to help others, and plumbing the wisdom of every setback.
The heart of Christian wisdom is the recognition that we are not made for this world, and that Christ alone is the path to true beatitude. Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” which begins “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” is a good start to tackling what ails us, but it would be best augmented with consistently taking our difficulties before the Blessed Sacrament, and asking the good God what He might have in mind.
We may be beaten down, thrown in a furnace, or sifted like sand, but if we remember how gold is purified, we will more fully appreciate the process. The pain may or may not be mitigated, but when we understand the profound value of suffering that is joined to Our Lord’s own Passion, we will be strengthened to bear it well. And that is true comfort!
Anchor columnist Genevieve Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-genius. typepad.com.