As a priest, let alone Christian, what could I say to a widowed mother who just lost her only son unexpectedly and tragically? As I waited in line with mourners inching towards the casket, all kinds of pious platitudes arose in my mind and quickly evaporated in the harsh glare of reality. When the mother saw me, she fell into my arms, crying on my shoulder. No words.
No amount of seminary training, courses on counseling or “book learning” adequately prepares us priests for arguably the most difficult moment of ministry: comforting those who mourn. The temptation is first to avoid the situation altogether. Then it is to escape as quickly as propriety allows. Lastly it is to “say something.” But I instinctively knew at that moment I was called just to be there, to stand there and to hold her—in silence.
Every human being on earth—and throughout history— eventually confronts the two great mysteries of suffering and death. Each religion offers an interpretation, if not an explanation, for these experiences. Hindus and Buddhists believe in karma, or as St. Paul puts it: as you sow so shall you reap (Galatians 6:7). Muslims submit to the will of God in all things, no matter how inscrutable. Jews have the comfort of that sublime piece of Wisdom literature, the Book of Job: “Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb and naked I return. The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Mercifully, most of us are not called to deal with major tragedies all the time. But throughout life there are constant sicknesses, setbacks and situations reminding us of our mortality. A rejection from college, loss of a job, bankruptcy, divorce and serious illness all force us to confront failure. And we are embarrassed, or at least reluctant, to make our family and friends aware of or uncomfortable by our misfortune.
“I don’t know what to say” is a common complaint I hear from people not knowing how to respond to others’ difficulties. But this is no excuse not to go and be with them, even if but to offer a kiss, a hug, a handshake or even a wonderfully honest confession: “I don’t know what to say.” That you bothered to show up at all, to share in a small way their suffering, says more than words ever could.
We Catholics have two models for suffering: Jesus on the cross and the Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross. Whose is more difficult? Knowing our loved one suffers to see us suffer has to be greater than any physical pain. And how many times is this scene being played out at this very moment in countless hospitals, prisons and funeral homes around the world?
We are to be the Beloved Disciple, offering our quiet presence in the darkest hour, putting our friend’s pain above our discomfort, and taking the Virgin Mary into our hearts, homes and lives as our shelter in the storm, our peace amid pain, and our guiding light in this dark valley of tears. No words.
Featured Image: Julia Gonzales, 62, weeps for her daughter, infant granddaughter and son-in-law killed in a volcanic eruption in Guatemala in June of this year. (l. Palma/CRS/Guatemala)