The apostle Paul tells us that we are the channels for the comfort of God. The God of all comfort has chosen to comfort his people in their affliction through his saints (2 Corinthians 1:3–7). We all share in Christ’s sufferings; therefore, we all may share in God’s comfort and extend that comfort to others in Christ.
But the form that such comfort takes is often elusive. What does it look like for us to comfort others in their affliction with the comfort we have received from God? As I was teaching through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov at Bethlehem College & Seminary, I caught a glimpse of one form that comfort takes. In a brief interaction over three pages, God helped me to see more clearly how to bring wisdom and compassion together to comfort the grieving.
The Elder and the Grieving Mother
Father Zosima is a Russian monk and the mentor of Alyosha Karamazov, the hero of the novel. Early on, we are introduced to Father Zosima as he shepherds and comforts a group of women who have come to him burdened with various griefs, trials, and tragedies. These women have come with an unquenchable grief, a grief that breaks forth from silence into tears and lamentation. These lamentations “ease the heart only by straining and exacerbating it more and more. Such grief does not even want consolation; it is nourished by the sense of its unquenchableness. Lamentations are simply the need to constantly irritate the wound” (48).
One such woman is a grieving mother who has buried her four children. The death of her last son at two years old has completely wrecked her. Her soul is wasted over him. Everything in her home reminds her of her little boy and sends her spiraling into despair.
In her grief, she has left her home, abandoned her husband, and lost herself in sorrow. She has come to Zosima seeking she knows not what. But Zosima is ready to meet her in her grief with the kind of wisdom and compassion that we need to comfort those in similar afflictions.
Weep, But Rejoice
So, what does Zosima do? First, he tells her a story of another grieving mother who was comforted by a great saint. The saint encouraged the grieving mother in the story by reminding her that infants who die are presently rejoicing with the angels in God’s glorious presence.
“Weeping may last for the night (and the night may last for a long time), but joy comes in the morning.”
Now, such a story creates space in the heart of the grieving mother. To listen to the story, she must, as it were, step outside her grief and consider what was said to the other mother. And of course, Zosima tells her the story so that she can come to see herself in it. He echoes the counsel of the saint in the story, though with a twist. Whereas the saint in the story had told the grieving mother, “Rejoice, and do not weep,” Zosima alters his encouragement to the mother before him, saying, “Weep, then, but also rejoice” (49).
So then, Zosima first takes the grieving mother out of herself and into a story in hope that she might find herself and learn to weep, but also to rejoice.
The grieving mother brings the lesson home; Zosima’s words echo what her husband Nikitushka had told her. He too had sought to encourage her with the presence of their son before God’s throne. But grief overpowers this truth. Wherever her child is, he’s not here, with her. The reality of her son’s absence emotionally overpowers the truth of her son’s presence with God. All she can think of is his little voice saying, “Mama, where are you?” and his little feet pattering across the floor, and his laughter and shouting and joy. And now he’s gone, and she’ll never hear or see him again (49–50).
Weep, But Remember
As the woman collapses into tears, Zosima speaks a second time, this time placing this grieving mother in the biblical story. “This is Rachel of old ‘weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are not’ [see Jeremiah 31:15]” (50). And Zosima echoes this biblical truth. There is a godly refusal to be comforted in one’s grief, as with Rachel. Zosima, in essence, grants permission for this woman’s refusal to be comforted. “Do not be comforted,” he says. “Do not be comforted, but weep.” But then he adds, “Only each time you weep, do not fail to remember.” Remember where your son is and with Whom.
And with these words, Zosima points the way forward. For now, refuse to be comforted. Like Rachel, lean into the sorrow. But as you press in, remember the goodness and kindness of God. And in time, weeping with remembrance will turn lamentation into “quiet joy,” and bitter tears into “tears of quiet tenderness” (50). Weeping may last for the night (and the night may last for a long time), but joy comes in the morning.
What Is His Name?
Zosima is not done. Having pointed the way forward, he himself leans into the suffering. He promises to remember her child and her in his prayers, and he asks for the child’s name.
“Alexei, dear father.”
“A lovely name! After Alexei, the man of God?”
“Of God, dear father, of God. Alexei, the man of God.”
“A great saint! I’ll remember, mother, I’ll remember, and I’ll remember your sorrow in my prayers.” (50)
“Stories are soul food, as one author puts it. And they can help us in soul care.”
A small interchange, but I think highly significant. In asking for the child’s name, Zosima communicates that he truly sees this woman, in all of her grief and pain. And he offers to join her in it. While she labors to weep and remember the mercy of God, Zosima will labor to remember her sorrow and her son. What’s more, he affirms her son’s name, connecting it to a saint from the past. He dignifies this mother and her son, and in doing so builds a further connection.
Weep, But Return
But Zosima has one final step, a call to action. Not only does he promise to remember little Alexei and his grieving mother, but he goes on to say, “I’ll remember your sorrow in my prayers, and I’ll remember your husband too.” This mother is not the only one who is grieving. And this husband has lost not only his son, but his wife as well. By bringing him to mind, Zosima is setting the stage to exhort this grieving mother and put her back on the path of healing.
Zosima says, “It is a sin to desert him. Go to your husband and take care of him” (50). This too is love and comfort. Zosima is reminding her, “Yes, you may weep. Yes, you may refuse to be comforted for a time (and even a long time). But in your weeping, do not sin. In your grief over this tragic loss, do not abandon God’s calling on you in the present.”
And Zosima’s words have their effect. The grieving mother exclaims, “I will go, my dear, according to your word, I will go. You’ve touched my heart. Nikitushka, my Nikitushka, you are waiting for me!” And she sets out on her long pilgrimage home.
Stories That Point to the Story
Of course, this little vignette is simply a story in a novel. But as in this brief conversation, stories are powerful. Stories are soul food, as one author puts it. And they can help us in soul care.
Stories can help us to gain perspective, to step outside of our own lives in order to reflect on reality. Stories can point us to The Story, so that we can find ourselves in God’s narrative when we’re lost and adrift. Stories can direct us to the truth, helping us to remember and to connect both with God and with each other. And stories can direct us to action, to remind us of God’s call upon us, so that we might walk in the light as he is in the light.