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.
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).