Saturday, April 26, 2008

April 26, 2008 - Comfort and Strength

I’ve subscribed, this month, to a short-term “e-course” on Spirituality and Illness, through the website, There are brief, daily readings that arrive by e-mail, and an online message board participants can use to communicate with one another. Yesterday’s topic was “Find a Source of Comfort.” I was struck by the following excerpt from a book, No Enemies Within: A Creative Process for Discovering What’s Right About What’s Wrong, by Dawna Markova (Conari Press, 1994):

“When I was in the hospital, the one person whose presence I welcomed was a woman who came to sweep the floors with a large push broom. She was the only one who didn't stick things in, take things out, or ask stupid questions. For a few minutes each night, this immense Jamaican woman rested her broom against the wall and sank her body into the turquoise plastic chair in my room. All I heard was the sound of her breath in and out, in and out. It was comforting in a strange and simple way. My own breathing calmed. Of the fifty or so people that made contact with me in any given day, she was the only one who wasn't trying to change me.

One night she reached out and put her hand on the top of my shoulder. I'm not usually comfortable with casual touch, but her hand felt so natural being there. It happened to be one of the few places in my body that didn't hurt. I could have sworn she was saying two words with each breath, one on the inhale, one on the exhale: ‘As... Is... As... Is...’

On her next visit, she looked at me. No evaluation, no trying to figure me out. She just looked and saw me. Then she said simply, ‘You're more than the sickness in that body.’ I was pretty doped up, so I wasn't sure I understood her; but my mind was just too thick to ask questions.

I kept mumbling those words to myself throughout the following day, "I'm more than the sickness in this body. I'm more than the suffering in this body." I remember her voice clearly. It was rich, deep, full, like maple syrup in the spring...”

I’ve been thinking about that word, “comfort,” ever since. It’s built from the Latin word fortis, which means “strong.” To comfort others is, literally, to make them strong. It is to build a fort around them, so they may withstand whatever threat may come.

It’s what that nameless Jamaican cleaner did for the woman telling the story. It’s significant to me that she was the only one who came into that hospital room without a specific, healing task to perform (at least, as “healing” is typically defined by the medical professions). Yet, this woman - an angel, really - had a way of healing by her very presence.

We’ve pretty much lost that sense of the word, in our culture. “Comfortable” has degenerated into “comfy” – as in a comfy chair. When we speak of “creature comforts,” we usually mean something that makes us softer, rather than stronger.

It calls to mind these famous words of the prophet Isaiah. They mark a continental divide in that biblical book, as the prophet changes from confronting a sinful people to comforting an exiled people:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
(Isaiah 40:1)

“Comfort” calls to mind, also, an old Fanny Crosby gospel hymn – one I haven’t thought of for a very long time – “All the Way My Savior Leads Me”:

“All the way my Savior leads me –
What Have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my guide?

Heavenly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.”

This is the sort of comfort that goes far beyond simply saying “There, there” to a crying child. “Heavenly peace, divinest comfort” gives people of faith the strength to go on.

1 comment:

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

This is a beautiful post. Thank you. And I'll check out that e-course.
Wendy S. Harpham, MD