The painting by Albrecht Dürer depicts the afflicted Job and his wife.
The verb to afflict derives from the Latin affligere, meaning to cast down, to damage, harass, torment, crush, shatter, or oppress. Affliction is an unavoidable part of human existence in this valley of tears where we go mourning and weeping. Meditating on the texts and chants of today’s Holy Mass, I discovered that running through them all is the motif of affliction, something to which every man can relate.
World, Flesh, Devil
Affliction generally proceeds from one of three causes, or from a combination of them. These causes are the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world is the universe and all it contains, including other people. The flesh is one’s self, marked by original sin and by a history of actual sins. The devil is the Evil One against whom we pray in the Pater Noster: the prince of this world, and his allies.
Sometimes, as in the case of great saints such as Saint Anthony of Egypt, Saint John Mary Vianney, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina,. Mother Yvonne-Aimée, or Marthe Robin, the devil causes affliction directly. This diabolical affliction may be spiritual, psychological, or spiritual. It may be even taken the form of perceptible physical aggressions.
More often than not, however, the devil makes use of secondary causes. Being astute, he knows how to make use of the shattered bits in ourselves and in others to orchestrate afflictions of all sorts. Rarely does one experience affliction without some kind of underlying conflict, and the devil is the master producer of conflict. The devil often profits from what he finds in the world and in our fallen nature to bring affliction down upon our heads. His aim is not merely to cause affliction; it is to push souls, by afflicting them in various ways, into doubt, despondency, and despair.
Of one thing we can be certain. God does not afflict us. Our God is a God, not of affliction, but of comfort and consolation. Thus writes Saint Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort. Who comforteth us in all our tribulation; that we also may be able to comfort them who are in all distress, by the exhortation wherewith we also are exhorted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us: so also by Christ doth our comfort abound.
God comforts, He does not afflict. When God permits us to be afflicted it is to draw a greater good out of the affliction by allowing the one afflicted to participate, in some way, in the redeeming Passion of Jesus Christ. God, in Himself, is perfect peace and peace is the signature of all His operations and works. Following Saint Ignatius’ rules for the discernment of spirits, one can unmask the afflictions of the Evil One, and place one’s confidence in God who waits to give us peace.
When we suffer affliction, God stands ready to turn it into blessings for ourselves and for others. If necessary, He will even send us a consoling Angel from heaven, as He did for His Only-Begotten Son in the Garden of Gethsemani (Luke 22:43). The Holy Angels are ministers of divine consolation, close to the broken-hearted, the weary, and the downcast.
In today’s Introit, God tells us that His thoughts concerning us are for our peace. The Lord is not the cruel conniver who seeks to afflict us, and so cause us to despair. He is the Giver of Peace, and the One who leads us out of the captivity of sin into the home He has prepared for us.
The Lord saith: I think thoughts of peace, and not of affliction: you shall call upon Me, and I will hear you; and I will bring back your captivity from all places. V. Lord, Thou hast blessed Thy land: Thou hast turned away the captivity of Jacob. (Psalm 84. 2) V. Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen. — The Lord saith: I think thoughts of peace , and not of affliction: you shall call upon Me, and I will hear you; and I will bring back your captivity from all places. (Jeremias 29: 11,12,14)
In the Epistle, Saint Paul commends the Christians of Thessalonica for having held fast to the Word, even in the midst of afflictions.
And you became followers of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: so that you were made a pattern to all that believe in Macedonia and in Achaia. (2 Thessalonians 1:6-7)
Thou hast delivered us, O Lord, from them that afflict us: and hast put them to shame that hate us. V.: In God we will glory all the day: and in Thy Name we will give praise for ever. (Psalm 43. 8-9)
In this magnificent chant in the 7th mode, God is revealed as the One who delivers us from those who afflict us. The experience of His saving grace causes us to glory in Him and to praise Him. Affliction lasts but for a time; the mercy of the Lord endures forever.
The Alleluia Verse and the Offertory Antiphon make use of the same text. It is the prayer of one afflicted, a prayer that rises out of the depths of darkness and temptation.
Alleluia, alleluia. V. From the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my prayer. (Psalm 129: 1-2) Alleluia.
In the Gospel, Our Lord presents two parables: that of the grain of mustard, and that of the leaven mixed into three measures of meal. Both parables speak directly to the present state of our monastery. We are very small and of little importance. Like the grain of mustard, and the grain of wheat in John 12:24, we are called to disappear into the earth and to die. Like the leaven hid in three measures of meal, we are called to be hidden. Our effect in the Church — and in the priesthood — will be proportionate to our hiddenness.
In the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus Christ is hidden: hidden, not only in the tabernacle, but hidden also beneath the humble appearances of the species of bread. The Sacred Host is the icon of the hiddenness to which we, as Benedictine adorers, are called. This hiddenness is an essential quality and condition of our vocation. Personally, I wonder if we — if I — am hidden enough. It is a questioned that must be asked in the light of Our Lord’s Eucharistic Face; only there can it be answered.
The hidden life is not free from afflictions. Hidden afflictions, in fact, may be the most painful to bear. How many secret afflictions will be revealed in glory where they will shine with reflected brightness of the sacred wounds of Jesus?
From the depths I have cried out to Thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my prayer: from the depths I have cried out to Thee, O Lord. (Psalm 129:1-2)
Finally, there is today’s Offertory Antiphon taken, as was the Alleluia Verse, from Psalm 129, the De Profundis. Composed in the second mode, this Offertory Antiphon is one of the most poignant of the whole Gregorian repertoire. It is the prayer of a soul brought low by affliction. Out of the depths rises the cry of a prayer that is real. It pierces the heavens and reaches the very heart of God. God is not indifferent to such prayers. He is, rather, touched by them, and moved to pity. Thus did he say to Moses:
I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of the rigour of them that are over the works: And knowing their sorrow, I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land into a good and spacious land, into a land that floweth with milk and honey. (Exodus 3:7-8)
God in the Midst of the Afflicted
The divine response to human affliction is to come down, to become close to the one afflicted. And this the mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist. It prolongs the great descent of the Incarnation in space and in history until the end of time. The Most Holy Sacrament is the mystery of a God come down to abide among the afflicted. Wheresoever the Most Holy Eucharist is present, afflictions become bearable, and the heaviest burdens are made lighter.