When thinking about the truly different social terrain of the last two months, the three words above came to mind as encapsulating what’s been preoccupying most discussions: consoling those reeling from drastically changed circumstances, grieving with those who’ve known loss of life and cheering on those marrying or graduating without the ceremonies and celebrations they had planned.
What’s front and center in all of those situations is the relative isolation and lack of physical or communal presence, but also the creative and indomitable ways people have still found to make those experiences happen.
Examples have abounded in news reporting from the local to the global, inspiring us all anew with the needed reminder of togetherness, which takes me back to those three words, all of which begin with "con" because they’re about connection, “being with.”
Whenever I think about particular words and meanings, one of the books I turn to is Ambrose Bierce’s "The Devil’s Dictionary" — a tongue-in-cheek exploration of hypocrisy and truth which began as occasional newspaper entries from 1881 to 1906.
A Civil War veteran nicknamed “Bitter Bierce” because of his sarcastic and scathing wit, Bierce nevertheless pulled the veneer off of social propriety and held a mirror to what people don’t readily like to admit.
While consolation is the act of consoling or soothing another person, Bierce defined it as, “The knowledge that a better man is more unfortunate than yourself.”
While condolence is about feeling pain or grieving with another, Bierce laid it out as, “To show that bereavement is a smaller evil than empathy.”
And while congratulations are all about wishing joy and being pleased with someone’s good happening, Bierce burst the bubble by calling it, “The civility of envy.”
During the 40 initial days of the Easter season, which culminated on May 21 with the remembrance of Jesus’ ascension, I committed myself to reading through a collection of private letters (ranging from Cicero in 45 B.C. to C.S. Lewis in 1945 A.D.) on the occasion of someone’s death, called "A Book of Condolences."
In the foreword, Madeleine L’Engle notes that in the face of grief, “Even the great writers stumble into childlike inarticulateness, and that is, in itself comforting…. We reach out toward each other and toward God in a cloud of unknowing.”
As the newly crucified and risen Jesus appeared to his fearful and flailing disciples who were not sure what to make of all that was unfolding, Jesus repeated three times the simplest and most comforting words they needed to hear: “Peace be with you” (see John 20:19-29).
Flowing from that peace-instilling presence, Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Christians of ancient Corinth: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
My prayer is that the hopefulness of a renewed sense of common humanity and Christian love replaces any bitter seeds of growing cynicism, and that we might all find our words and actions guided by this wise and humble prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen."