The Nature of Consolation

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known. But now faith, hope, and love remain - these three. The greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:12-13

Usually, plants sprout and grow spontaneously and organically.  We don't really need to understand or even think about the processes that are going on to make it happen.  But sometimes we need a plant to grow in an artificial environment.  Then it is important to know how the process works naturally and what the component parts are so we can make it happen synthetically.

Usually, we find ways to sooth our stresses spontaneously and organically.  We don't really need to understand or even think about the processes that are going on to make it happen. But now we are in isolation from one another facing a serious disease and an uncertain future. There is value in thinking about how we find consolation naturally so that maybe we can recreate it in our new, challenging circumstances.  

It seems to me we find consolation in three ways: in solitude, in communion with God, and in community with each other.

Consolation in Solitude.  This is the specialty of Buddhism and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. It also appears in Christian Scripture and tradition.  It boils down to deliberately thinking in ways that reduce stress and, because the mind is influenced by the body, physically behaving in ways that do the same thing.  Most Christians are familiar with the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to accept the things I can and wisdom to know the difference”).  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus made the distinctly Buddhist statement, “therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”. And relatedly, “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin”.  I know there is a great deal of allegiance to the idea that the content of The Lord’s Prayer is beautiful, but I really don’t agree.  What makes it profoundly comforting is that it is easily memorized and recited at a moment of stress, and instantly places the speaker in the content of the divine and eternal. It pushes stressful, damaging thoughts aside.  All these thoughts and actions tend to relieve stress.

Communion with God. A person of faith never feels alone. Perhaps the boldest assertion of faith is that if you have faith you will find a joy not accessible any other way and of exceptional power. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7) This is the great disconnect between atheists and agnostics on one hand and people of faith on the other.  The former believes we are waiting for consolation from God through a miraculous change in circumstances or a turn in luck.  We know our consolation lies in simply abiding with God.

Consolation in Community.  Finally, there is consolation in community.  The Harvard Study of Adult Development has concluded that close friendship is the best predictor of health.  A good friend of mine who is a social worker for a metropolitan school system says that when he is presented with a deeply depressed student, he tries to reconnect them to their social group. This is the dynamic that caused the early Christian church to sweep the globe.   In John’s retelling of the Last Supper, there is no mention of a Eucharistic liturgy and he offers no new theology.  Instead, Jesus lays out how cultivating community will spread the Gospel.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35  

Consolation in isolation corresponds roughly to “hope”, consolation in communion with God corresponds roughly to “faith”, and consolation in community corresponds roughly to “love”. We would expect St. Paul to value faith – communion with God - over any other consolation. But he says the greatest of these is love. We are social beings.  The isolation that has been imposed on us is very difficult to bear and deprives us of the most reliable and strongest means of consoling ourselves and each other

I don’t know how to overcome this new obstacle to community.  The threat of COVID-19 is a dark cloud that is hard to shake in isolation.  I appreciate the efforts of churches to provide remote services and sermons, but no mass-produced online content has successfully taken the place of physical proximity for me.  Fortunately, the situation is unpleasant but not overwhelming so far.  I am fortunate in that I am only in relative isolation and still have the community of family. I suppose the best we can do is to cultivate and rely on the other two forms of consolation and to be sensitive to the needs of those who are not in isolation with family members, or do not have access to the other two forms of consolation.

Photo: Rembrandt's St. Paul