The Comfortable Words and the Literature of Consolation I
The “comfy words,” as they are affectionately or pejoratively called, are a peculiar feature of the Prayer Book liturgy however much one might find some precedence in the psalms surrounding the words of absolution in the Liturgy of St. Mark and the Liturgy of St. James in the rites of Eastern Orthodoxy or in sixteenth century Lutheranism such as Hermann of Cologne’s Consultations which is probably the more immediate source. That work places the Comfortable Words before the words of absolution rather than after the absolution. “Here what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him,” is what we hear in the Prayer Book Communion Service just after the surpassing comfort of the words of absolution, the words of the forgiveness of our sins pronounced after confession.
What we hear are a selection of Scriptural words that are, well, comforting and powerful. But why? And what do they mean in this context? What is meant by “comfortable”? Even more, do they have any connection to the tradition of Consolation Literature, both non-Christian and Christian? This will be our Lenten consideration: to consider the Comfortable Words in relation to the literature of consolation, attending to one or two works in particular in that extensive tradition.
Our Lenten series cannot pretend to be an exhaustive consideration. The richness and the wealth of the material is just so great and vast, each work worthy of so much more consideration in its own right. It will not even be possible to name all of the works that might be included in the catalogue of the literature of consolation. But in general, the literature of consolation deals with the question about how we face suffering, sorrow, and loss philosophically and religiously. The terms are complementary.
But what about the term “comfortable”? The great mystery writer, Dame P.D. James, in a work which stands outside her oeuvre of mystery novels, The Children of Men, makes the acute observation about contemporary Christianity that “the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism”. What this means, the novel suggests is the virtual abolition of “the Second Person of the Trinity together with His cross.” Good-bye Jesus. The cross, traditionally seen as the symbol of comfort and consolation, becomes “the stigma of the barbarism of officialdom and of man’s ineluctable cruelty”. Good-bye redemptive suffering. There is just the sense that for some, particularly unbelievers, the cross “has never been a comfortable symbol.” But in the context of her novel which explores more or less completely the dystopian qualities of contemporary culture, what is more cruel and more barbaric? The cross or “corporate social responsibility” which in the novel includes the Quietus, a euphemism for euthanasia of the elderly and the inconvenient? What is more cruel? The cross or “sentimental humanism” in a world devoid of purpose and meaning? These are not merely rhetorical questions.