2 Corinthians 7:2-11:
Make room in your hearts for us; we have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one. I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together. I often boast about you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with consolation; I am overjoyed in all our affliction. For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way—disputes without and fears within. But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly). Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter.
The dreaded "consolation prize."
Now, those of us who grew up watching game shows on TV knew what winning a "consolation prize" meant. It meant, "No money, just stuff--and probably stuff you really don't want or need." The poor dweeb who got "last place" in any game show and did not make the "final round" or the "bonus round" got shoved out the door and promised many "lovely parting gifts," for which that pour soul would manage a weak, insincere smile and perhaps even a handshake for the winners, and subsequently be hastily shooed offstage.
So, most of us have been trained to learn that "console" really doesn't mean "console." It means buck up and suck up, and to simply "get over it."
But Paul is talking about a whole 'nother kind of consolation entirely in his second letter to the Corinthians. To borrow from the old hymn, "Just as I am", it's safe to say the church in Corinth was full of "fightings without and fears within." I am imagining there was a fair bit of Jews vs. Gentiles, rich vs. poor, powerful vs. powerless, men vs. women, and a few other things besides.
Although Paul's Epistles were generally written to various churches in the early history of Christianity, there's a lot of overlap of "the early Church mirroring life." This stuff is basically the ordinary hoo-haa of "life's conflicts." We are always living in a state of some form of conflict in or personal lives or work lives, and some of them are big, some of them are small. Some involve people who want to make small conflicts big, and some who want to pretend big conflicts don't exist. Nothing new to see here!
But how we deal with these conflicts can be something new, and some of this can be understood better through Ignatian spirituality and what St. Ignatius of Loyola called "feelings of consolation." About the best description I have read about feelings of consolation is that they are feelings that, despite their pain and associated sadness and grief, create a stirring of movement within ourselves to move closer to God as a result of these feelings.
About the best way I can connect this is by telling one of the "family stories I was told about me, that I was too little to remember."
I was told that, about the time I was learning to walk, I was always trying to do more than I was capable of doing. This, of course, led to several falls and spills. When I would fall down, I would wail like I was being tortured--but any attempt to pick me up and comfort me was met with me pushing both hands away at the attempted "comforter," and I would just wail louder and yell, "NOOOOOOOO!" at the top of my lungs.
This, evidently, upset my mother greatly. Then she would wail that she was, somehow, a bad mother. My grandmother would just roll her eyes and grunt, "Oh, bull. Just leave her alone. She'll get up when she's sick of crying, and she'll come and be loved when she's ready to be loved. Some babies, if you interrupt their being miserable, it just makes them miserable all the longer. I wouldn't even go in there when she's being like that unless you hear gagging noises or see bleeding."
Sure enough, that is what would happen. Over time (a longer time and with more volume than my mom would have liked) I would suddenly quit crying, get up of my own accord, and seek out a grownup for consolation.
But back to the point of this story. Feelings of consolation begin with "holy grief"--grief that, we know deep down inside, has the purpose of eventual joy and growth. The toddler "me" innately knew that I wanted to walk where I wanted to walk as I pleased, at the speed I wanted to do it--I was just frustrated that I could not do it this one particular time, at the moment I wanted to do it.
So many times, in our grief, we have that image of "what we want," or "where we want to be," or "how we want it to be." That image stands before us almost like a goalpost. But there we are, our butts knocked to the ground, our knees skinned, our pride wounded--and we find ourselves practically crying because we are crying. We want that "happily ever after." We want that inner peace. We want serenity. But it's pretty clear at this moment we are not getting it.
In the beginnings of those places, we can't even begin to feel anything remotely related to "consoled." We are not ready to accept anything other than the goalpost we've imagined. I like to imagine that toddler "me" in my story saw a cookie. No other cookie will do. It's not a cookie that baby wants, it's that cookie, over on the table, that led to having a spill in an attempt to get it. If you don't believe me, stick another cookie in front of that child. You will be liable to get your hand slapped down and yelled, "NOOOOOOO" at so fast, it'll make your head spin...and be prepared for another round of wailing, probably even bigger than the first! After all, not only is that mystical, magical cookie out of reach, here's some fool grownup who doesn't "get" it, invading that baby's personal space, and standing in the way of that cookie, holding up some other blasted cookie like the child's too dumb to know the difference.
But after some period of time, something starts to shift a little bit. When we stay attuned to God's voice, plain old grief begins to morph into "holy grief." Deep down inside, we feel this little "blip" within us. The best way I can describe it within myself is it is a tiny whiff of the powerful and awesome presence of God. We still hurt. We still feel awful in many ways. But there's also a deep sense of God not removing that pain, but feeling the pain more or less begin to collapse into this warm "center place." The pain begins to become a veneer, and this soft squishy center to it begins to expand.
There begins to be this feeling that it's not so important to have "that cookie" anymore. It might even move into a place where it's not even important to have "a cookie" anymore. It doesn't mean that we will never have the magic cookie--maybe we will, maybe we won't--but it merely becomes one of many possibilities, any of which seem acceptable. When we get to that place where we are spiritually indifferent to one particular outcome, when we are no longer invested in one particular outcome, this overwhelming sense of "it is what it is, and it's all okay," begins to take over. Then, when we realize we are actually feeling closer to God, even under this veneer of pain and woundedness, that our will and God's will has somehow become aligned, is when we begin to feel consoled.
Here's the beauty of it--when we begin to feel consoled, if we can manage to continue to remain aligned with God, feelings of being reconciled to it all are not far behind.
To me, that's the definition of "serenity." Serenity, to me, is the sense of deep joy within myself no matter what makes up the outer veneer of our experiences. Serenity does not require outer peace, nor a happy ending, nor my wants and needs delivered on demand. Serenity's only requirement is feeling a sense of a present joy, no matter what the outward situation.
Another way I would describe the feeling of "consolation" within myself is like this: I still feel wounded in some way--there is still some form of discomfort within me--but I feel I am being held gently in my discomfort. It's a place where I feel I am resting my head on God's chest and hearing God's holy heart beat in my ears and feel its pulsations upon the side of my face. It's truly a most wonderful place, even though I still feel my scrapes and bruises.
One of the experts in systems theory of congregations, Ross Scherer, talks about change having two parents--pain and possibility. I think that can be a personal experience too. When I feel consoled by God, I feel equal parts pain and possibility in this state of being held. Part of me knows I need to get up and leave this place, skinned knees and all, and that I will. But an equal part of me knows it's okay to stay in this place as long as I desire and need to feel this loving consolation. I think this is a very okay place to be! Without pain of my own, how can I fully understand compassion? Many times, that residual veneer of our own pain is important to be fully "in the moment" when we show compassion, or are stirred to action in mission and outreach. In fact, what usually causes me to leave the place of consolation is to respond outward, to help others. I usually don't leave on my own account. I know innately there will be movement--but it will probably be triggered by something out of my control.
In that, we are given a TRUE "consolation prize"--something cherished, desired, and valuable--rather than a bunch of cheap and tawdry "lovely parting gifts." We are given something that inspires us not just to be God's hands and feet in the world, but God's own heart.