Archives For Suffering

comfort bunny

Some people flee from those who are depressed. Others feel compelled to do their best to lift their spirits. Did you react the same way as C.S. Lewis to the suffering of others?

Recently I’ve had the privilege of sharing the anguish of several people who see no solution to their personal challenges. In truth, even though I sincerely believe “with God, all things are possible,” it is likely that these particular dilemmas will trouble these people the remainder of their lives.

Some people are “fixers,” or problem-solvers. They want to step in, quickly resolve the difficulty, and return to their normal routine as soon as possible. When faced with an intransigent challenge, they typically get called away by other matters, or they fade into the background.

There is a sort of spectrum when it comes to offering comfort to people. At one end, we have the people who offer insincere clichés like “I’m so sorry.” These remarks are often an automatic response and the only thing the speaker is “sorry” about is having their time “wasted” by the litany of another’s suffering.

Better than these liars, are the pretenders. They actually do feel sorry for the person when they say so. Only, they’re not sorry enough to actually devote another moment’s thought to their pain. They are hypocrites, because if they really understood what the word sorrow means, they would understand that it doesn’t evaporate into the mists six mere heartbeats after it is experienced.

Most people fall further along the spectrum, where we might place sympathy and empathy. Although the words are frequently used interchangeably, this site offers a concise definition of their differences.

In essence, when we are empathetic, we identify more intimately with the sufferer. It seems to me that empathy, often viewed as a sort of super-sympathy, is not necessarily the mark of a better sympathizer. Sometimes it corresponds to our own life experiences. For example, while my mother was still living I could readily sympathize with those who had lost their own. After my mom’s untimely death, I found myself naturally, and sometimes intensely, empathizing with their grief.

Genuine sympathy is a precious commodity. But it must grant higher honor to that form of consolation that puts our emotional concern into actual action. The specific actions are less important than the fact that we have physically placed the needs of the other ahead of our own. They might consist of attending to someone’s responsibilities while they are incapacitated, or simply holding a hand for long hours in a silent bedside vigil. The form matters little; the essence of the gift is everything. It is nothing less than love in action.

Lewis’ Compassionate Heart

Lewis constantly offered consolation to those with whom he corresponded. Our last post included an excellent example of this. What made his brief expressions of concern so powerful was not their eloquence. It was their sincerity. As we read the words we have no doubt that Lewis meant them. What’s more, when he said that he was praying for someone, he truly was.

Lewis also incorporated moving scenes of compassionate empathy in his fiction. Read how Steven Garber described the comfort he has received from the Chronicles of Narnia.

“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last,” Lewis once wrote. Over the years, in the moments when life seems bleakest, when I can only sigh or groan, I have come back again and again to The Magician’s Nephew. . . .

Lewis gives us an image that is profoundly rich and wonderfully tender. We need both. The tears of God are complex. They must be tears of sympathy, even empathy, as Aslan weeps for Digory’s mother and as Jesus weeps with his friends at the death of their brother.

But sometimes they are also tears of anger at the unnaturalness of death, at the distortion of death, at the skewing of human hopes, as Jesus “groaned severely in his spirit” at the death of Lazarus. (Visions of Vocation)

One of the clearest examples of consolation offered by Lewis is found in his provision for Mrs. Moore, the mother of a WWI friend. The story is complex, but it is based upon Lewis keeping a promise—that if one of them died in the trenches, the other would care for that soldier’s parent.

Lesser men would have conveniently forgotten their vow, but Lewis provided for her from 1917 until her death in 1951. Their relation during the early years is uncertain, but there is no doubt that after his conversion to Christianity, it was chaste. Lewis was dutiful, like a true son, in caring for a woman more than twenty-five years his senior, whose own daughter acknowledged was emotionally abusive towards Lewis.

Professor Alice von Hildebrand offers a candid essay on this sensitive subject here. She includes the following quotation from the diary of Lewis’ brother, Warnie, who was a member of the same household.

One of Jack’s friends is supposed to have said, “Cursed be the day that thou fell into the hands of the Moore.” Warren gave vent to his frustration and constant irritation by confiding in his diary. He writes:

“It fills me with both admiration and irritation to see how completely the whole of J’s [Jack, the name by which Lewis’ friends addressed him] life is subordinated to hers—financially, socially, recreationally: the pity of it is that on his selflessness her selfishness fattens . . .”

True Compassion

An essay on this subject could easily grow into a book. To avoid that, I will restrain myself to one final point.

Only a master of language, and an astute student of humanity, recognizes the immense power, and the fragile limitation, of words. Ironically, it is when they are most important—such as in the offering of comfort to someone bereaved—that their shortcomings are most clear.

In the wake of the unbearable loss of his wife, Joy, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed. In this enlightening text, he points out the hollowness of mere words.

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

This is something few people recognize before they are the recipients of word-oriented attempts at comfort. That’s why we stumble about saying things that frequently provide precious little true consolation.

Lewis had learned that abstract theological declarations—even those based on certain promises of God—do little to remove the deep sting of death. Far more effective, is sharing the crippling pain of the loss. To offer, as Jesus did to the sisters of Lazarus, one’s own tears.

If you are interested in reading more about this subject, you might want to check out one of my earlier posts on the nature of genuine consolation.

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The illustration above comes from a thirteenth century manuscript. I have included it here, because the effort of the rabbit seeking to console the forlorn bird seems quite Narnianesque. It echoes the essence of Lewis’ childhood world of Boxen as well, and I imagine that C.S. Lewis would have enjoyed this marginalia on its own merit.

Compassionate Care

August 11, 2012 — 17 Comments

In my last column I shared how I had been drafted into service as my wife’s nurse.

The duties are not onerous, in part because she’s become quite ambulatory with her crutches . . . but even more, due to the fact that I truly love her. To care for those you love is a natural thing, and it would be the opposite path—to ignore the suffering of those about whom you care—that would be contrary to human nature.

This is why we are also so deeply stunned when we see spouses doing harm to one another, or (far worse) injuring children in their care. These are inhuman acts contrary even to that universal Natural Law which governs even those who take no notice of religious codes.

But, returning to my nursing experience . . . I am not a total stranger to such matters. My first assignment as an Air Force chaplain was in a “Contingency Hospital” which was part of the Reserve. As part of my active duty tours I frequently included hospital visitation and service.

In fact, years ago during a five week Joint military exercise in Thailand, I served for a season as the chaplain of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. (Yes, I was an honest to goodness M*A*S*H chaplain!)

Returning to my initial point, caring for my wife is not burdensome. I readily confess I would hardly bring the same enthusiasm and selflessness to caring for a stranger.

But that’s not the man, the disciple of Jesus, I desire to be. And so, I pray for greater compassion, exercise and “stretch” my concern for others, seek forgiveness for my failings . . . and repeat the cycle.

C.S. Lewis writes brilliantly about the great significance of each and every human life. In The Weight of Glory he reminds us that we have the potential to influence their lives either positively or negatively, and assisting them to follow the path to “glory” is central to our reason for being.

It is hardly possible for [us] to think too often or too deeply about [the future destiny] of [our] neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. . . .

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations [glorified resurrection in the presence of our Creator or eternal corruption apart from God].  It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

One of my favorite books was written by Calvin Miller. He’s the author of numerous classics, and I most recently enjoyed his The Path of Celtic Prayer. However, because of my interest in the early church, and my affection for keenly wielded wit, it is The Philippian Fragment which ranks in my personal “top ten.” (And, great news, despite being out of print for some time, it’s now available in a Kindle edition!)

The following quotation is from one of the epistles gathered in pseudepigraphical Philippian Fragment. The letters are written by a pastor named Eusebius of Philippi to another shepherd, “Clement, pastor of Coos.” It illustrates precisely the spirit we should have within us. If we were all like Eusebius, this world would be a far more wonderful place.

I am not sure that I can survive the new hostility I have engendered by missing church merely to pray for a dying man. I was foolish to assume that the church would see the glory of my ministry to Publius and excuse the absence of my sermon. Through pain I have learned that it is still wrong to heal on the sabbath—at least during the eleventh hour. . . . Is the yet-paralyzed Publius worth the cancellation of my morning sermon? I have betrayed a tradition to furnish forth a single act of compassion. Oh, the institutional cankers that do fester when traditions are unserved! . . . It is time for the evening vigil now, and I have just received word that one of the lepers is at death’s door and has called for me to come. Shall I go to tend the dying, or shall I go to church and keep my place?

I had planned to talk tonight about how we must minister to our world before we seek each other’s consolations. I am still unforgiven by most for healing the paralytic. Now I must go to the leper and seal my fate. 26. Grief is seldom convenient to our scheduled worship.

I had a dear mentor, Constantinus, who was shepherd of the congregation in Antioch. His church’s meeting house was near a busy road. One day, five minutes before his well-packed service was to begin, a Roman chariot ran over a beggar and left him dying before the church house. How grieved was the pastor that most of his members stepped over the bleeding man to carry their prayer scrolls on into the sanctuary. Constantinus was a gentle pastor and full of the love of Christ. He scooped up the emaciated old man and carried him to his grieving widow.

In the process of his ministry to this victim of Roman traffic, his hands and togas were fouled with blood. There was no time to go home and change clothes, so he entered his pulpit besmirched by the gore of his own compassion. 31. Clement, many in that congregation never forgave Constantinus his bloody toga. Ministry must ever be willing to face tradition. Somewhere a leper is dying. Tonight I shall act out a sermon. I can preach next week when human suffering is more remote. (Calvin Miller, The Philippian Fragment).

Nursing Those We Love

August 1, 2012 — 13 Comments

This week I became a nurse. No, I didn’t complete a degreed or certificated program, I simply assumed the duties of being my wife’s post-surgical caregiver.

She had very serious knee surgery, which will require her to place no weight at all on her right leg for at least a month and a half. This first week she’s required an escort and assistance for virtually everything. And I’ve offered this service gladly, and lovingly . . . even when it’s interrupted my sleep apnea crippled rest.

Obviously, over three and a half decades of marriage, she has needed modest nursing in the past. But this is more serious. It is sustained. She has seen me through a number of serious illnesses and surgeries, but then she (like so many other women I’ve been privileged to know) is a natural nurse and caregiver.

C.S. Lewis was a man not vastly different from me. He was not terribly comfortable when placed in such a role . . . yet he too discovered great meaning in caring for the needs of his wife during her illness. His precious Joy was dying, so the intensity of his labors, and their corresponding emotional investment dwarf my own. And yet the “framework” of our circumstances bears a marked similarity.

In his wonderful book Lenten Lands, Lewis’ son Douglas Gresham relates how Lewis and his brother Warnie provided exceptional care to his mother during her illness. He writes:

[Lewis] spent most of each day with [Joy] at the hospital, but they both agreed Mother should be brought home to The Kilns to die—in Jack’s home—her husband’s home—with him at her side. The “common room” was converted to a hospital ward, complete with a system of bells by which Mother would summon a nurse, or later Jack, if she needed help, as she often did.

I’ll make a confession. Although most men can adequately perform familial nursing duties when there is no alternative caregiver, most of us are quite content to step aside and let our wives or sisters attend to whatever nursing procedures are called for. Actually, I was quite gifted at removing slivers, but when it comes to bodily discharges, I’m no sexist to admit I and most of my gender display a serious weakness.

And yet, even in these cases, when changing the soiled diaper of an infant (or someone old enough to feel shame for having such needs) . . . even such unpleasant acts are possible for us to do for those we love. So the key to being able to care for others is not to pinch our nose and do it as quickly as humanly possible. The key, instead, is to learn to love those placed in our care.

In our grandparents day, it wasn’t uncommon for an elderly great-grandparent to reside with the family of one of their children. My father, for example, grew up with his blind grandfather as a member of their household. Similarly, my mother enjoyed the daily presence of her grandmother in her own home throughout her life. Not only was it expected that children would “take in” their elderly parents, it was natural. After all, they were family.

But, how does one transfer this familial affection to the stranger? After all, as Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (John 6).

Mother Teresa and the many thousands of saints throughout history who have cared for the leper, the outcasts, and the dying know this truth. They do everything as though they were caring for the Lord himself, just as he asked his disciples to do. Medicines are not their only balms—nor their most important. Their compassionate touch and tender encouragements are often far more healing.

When I compare myself to these caregivers, I realize just how inadequate a nurse I am. As a pastor, a core aspect of my vocation has been to bind the injuries of the sheep entrusted to my care. But I do this in a “spiritual” manner, and it has been rare to ever help one of them replace a bloodied bandage. Spiritual, emotional and social wounds are those that most pastors feel comfortable treating. Providing for the “baser” physical needs of the diseased is quite another matter.

And this brings us to the end of today’s reflection. When next I write, I’ll carry this final thought a bit farther forward.