Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,the Father of compassion and the God of all encouragement,who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.
2 Cor 1:3-4
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. . . . Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Matthew 5: 4-5, 9
Where does courage come from and who are the truly courageous among us? As a young boy I remember at some point becoming aware that my father, who was not an exceptionally physically strong person or a commanding figure of any kind, was always called on by his family in moments of difficulty, suffering, or death. He seemed, when needed, to always be there, even when others seemed unable to be. Although he was not an overtly or practicing religious person, and so, as I recall, never spoke in religious cliches or “words of wisdom” in an attempt to gloss over the pain for a difficult moment, he was always present to others at such times. To this day, in painful and conflictive moments, I will hear him say, “It’s okay, Johnny.”
In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, St. Paul thanks and praises God “who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the very encouragement which God has given us. It takes courage to embrace and to bear with our lives. The root of the word “courage” is the latin “cor,” heart. We learn courage by living from the heart, by living by the teaching of Jesus in the beatitudes: by mourning our losses and not avoiding them and by receiving and bearing life with meekness rather than asserting a false sense of control and mastery that always requires a measure of denial. it is our way of receiving and accepting all of life with appreciative abandonment to the truth that we can become a source of encouragement to others, that we can become peacemakers.
To remain present to and bearing with our own suffering, strangely enough, does not come naturally to us. Rather, the spontaneous movement within us is to flee and defend against what feels to us as if it is “too much.” I began to recognize, much to my surprise as a child, my father’s courage when I would see that he would be called on by his family at difficult and painful moments: when his parents or siblings would die, when there would be conflict among his siblings, when conflict threatened the marriage relationships of family members. So often, I would witness that he would refuse to take sides in such conflicts even when most others had readily done so. He had a space in him to receive the unique experience of each person involved.
On the other hand, although I had no name for it at the time, I could see that often he himself flirted with the experience of depression. At times his moodiness would infuriate me. I wished, often enough, that he could be more like what I saw in others around me, a kind of what I thought was faith which allowed them to stay upbeat, to put a good face on everything that happened. Although he always attempted not to inflict the suffering of his experience on me, I could see, often enough in him, the pain and struggle that the limits of his own life and early formation imposed on him. This, on the one hand, appeared to me to be weakness. Yet, his inheritance to me was precisely the opposite. I have come to see that what he actually transmitted was encouragement, the courage to bear with and hopefully share with others that truth that finally, no matter how it feels at the moment, it will be okay.
To know God’s encouragement in our affliction, we first must recognize that affliction. We must remember who we are by remaining present to all we are going through. One of the ways I come, in retrospect, to recognize stressful experiences is that I realize at some point that I have been pushing to get through or to accomplish something and not remained present to myself as I did so. This occurs in significant moments of life, but also in very common, unspectacular, everyday ones. Yesterday, I realized at some point in the day that I had created for myself a very long and tiring return home from a weekend away. I could have returned early on Monday morning, but, given work that awaited me, I decided to return on a 10::00 pm flight, which would get me to Baltimore by 11:30 or so and home by midnight. As I headed to the airport in the early evening, I knew that I’d have several hours in a lonely airport ahead of me.
What I didn’t know was that my flight would be delayed first for an hour and a half and then, due to mechanical difficulty probably much longer. After being patient enough for the first few hours, I began to get more and more agitated. Instead of remaining settled and doing my reading or other work, I began more and more to recheck the latest information about the flight, to look around me and conjecture what others were doing, to wander somewhat aimlessly around the airport gate area. I’d direct my attention off the page I was reading and to the tarmac outside to see if a plane was arriving at the gate, as if my missing its arrival would delay it longer.
Such minor difficulties have about them the power to evoke very strong feelings and experience in us. They remind us of our vulnerability and our powerlessness. They can evoke in us deep feelings of loneliness, which can carry with them reminders of past and future losses. It is refusal to be with and to enter these experiences that gives rise to the agitation and useless activity which is a mode of forgetfulness and a loss of courage. To enter into what our hearts and souls suffer, in the ordinary and in the extraordinary moments of life, is what develops and strengthens our heart and soul. For, God is always present in the truth of things.
When we dissociate from the depth level of our own experience, we are no longer available to “the Father of compassion and the God of all encouragement.” A great illusion of our unconscious is that we are unable to bear our own experience. We flee from presence to our own life because we are convinced it is too much for us. Faith, which is really courage, is the trust that we can bear the cross that is ours. “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24) In doing so, we receive the encouragement that comes from God, not only to continue on our own way but to be a source of courage and encouragement for others.
I went back in my mind to the feeling in the room when Mother was dying, to the bodies of my son and daughter, their partners, my sister and brother-in-law, their daughter, my uncle, his son, my cousin, all leaning slightly forward on their seats, listening for something that would soon be something no more, listening for an absence that would confirm a departure we all knew had already occurred. Was that peaceful? Certainly it was calm, and resigned. There was a feeling of truce. There were battles set aside. There was a baseline affection for each other. Something had been allowed to emerge that is always there, but that we don’t often express; our tenderness towards others, and towards ourselves, because mortal.
Tim Parks, In Extremis, pp. 256-7