The Abbé Henri Perreyve (1831–1865) was a sensitive and gifted young priest, a friend of Frédéric Ozanam and of Père Lacordaire. He joined the Oratory of Paris, but was obliged to withdraw when he fell ill of tuberculosis in 1863. He died at the age of 34 in Paris on 26 June 1865, after having found meaning in his suffering and given hope to many. The following dialogue between a sick man and Christ the Consoler is taken from the Abbé Perreyve’s little book, “Counsels to the Sick”, translated by Kathleen O’Meara, London, 1881.
The sick man:
Lord, the day wears on and the sun already begins to decline : Thy words and Thy grace have sustained me until this hour, but fresh trials come with mid-day, and, as it were, fuller floods of suffering. I see the business of life going on all around me, I hear far-off sounds which speak to me of the diligent and useful labours of my fellow creatures. Suffering and weakness compel me to live a selfish life, just as pleasure causes selfishness in others. This thought fills me with sorrow and humiliation, for, O my God, Thou didst give me a heart to love Thee, and a will to work for Thy glory and the good of my fellow-creatures.
Why am I, then, so powerless, while longing to do Thee service, or why do spiritual love and longing outlive the strength to exert them ? Lord, quench this holy fire which burns to no purpose in my heart, and only makes still heavier the burden of a useless life.
Christ the Comforter:
Has the initiation of suffering taught thee nothing, O My child ? Listen to My words, and lay them to heart. Of all the things which man must learn, the most hidden and mysterious is suffering. However tender a man’s heart may be, or however quick his instinct, he will never understand the sufferings of others, unless he himself has suffered ; he will speak of them as a blind man might talk of colours. Hence the common incapacity of those who have never known suffering to console those who suffer. Nothing can make amends for this want; not the warmest affection, not the most entire devotion. Personal experience can. alone break down the barrier, and give us the grace of consolation for others.
Hast thou not often felt this, my child? What comfort hast thou met with in thine hours of weakness from those gay and prosperous people on whom fortune has smiled uninterruptedly ? Many of them loved thee well, and earnestly desired to help thee ; but wise and kindly as their words might be, that word was always wanting which would have brought thee comfort. This mysterious word, this drop of holy unction, nothing can teach it to the soul but a personal acquaintance with suffering.
This law is so deep and so universal, that even I, Who am possessed of all knowledge, I willed to feel every secret of human misery in the weakness of the flesh, that so I might become to man that experienced Comforter whom he so greatly needs in time of distress. My participation in their sorrows draws men powerfully to Me ; and when the fire of trial comes upon them, it is not to the contemplation of My glory on Mount Thabor that they turn, but to My Cross on Calvary. There, seeing in My sacred Limbs the furrows of their own afflictions, they say with unshaken confidence, “For we have not a High Priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities ; but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). This science of suffering is so important that nothing can make up for the want of it. He who has it not, let him beware how he attempts to deal with the sorrows of others ; but he who possesses it may do all things, for he bears within himself a healing power.
He who has suffered, who has passed through long years of grief and affliction, of wearing anxiety, of secret heart-sinkings, of disappointed hopes and lonely tears — such a one, if he has not received his soul in vain, ought henceforward to pass through the world as a living sacrament of My consolation. Such a one cannot fail to have a soothing influence on suffering souls. The sick, the sorrowful, the afflicted, recognize him at once from amongst other men. Others may speak, but he only holds the secret of that watchword, which finds its way to the stricken heart, and acts like balm upon its wounds.
Such a one is gentle, tender, patient towards pain. He knows that a sick man has become a child again, and that if he needs bracing words to stir up the dormant energies of his mind, on the other hand, his weakness requires the indulgent ease and watchfulness of a mother. He who has himself been taught by suffering has the art of gently turning sick souls to thoughts of Me. He will not, as some do, make his zeal a pretext for a harshness which of itself provokes and excites opposition. “The bruised reed He shall not break, and the smoking flax He shall not quench” (Isaias 43:3).
Therefore rejoice, O My child, that thou hast known what it is to suffer, and be comforted that thou art still called upon to. suffer ; this initiation into suffering is an unspeakable treasure. Thou wilt soon seek out the afflicted ; or, if thou canst not go in search of them, they will come to thee. Welcome the sorrowful as sent to thee ‘by Me; welcome them as those for whom thou hast learnt, and laboured, and suffered ; welcome them as those I have committed to thy care in this world. Thou wilt need no studied words wherewith to speak to them ; open thy heart and show them the scars of thine own wounds ; tell them that thou hast known what it is to suffer ; listen to the story of their trials, and answer them out of the fulness of thy heart. Rich in this treasure of consolation, thou mayest go without fear amongst the poor and sorrowful. Thy griefs will disappear before their griefs, thy sufferings will vanish before their sufferings ; thou wilt forget thyself in ministering to others, and when evening comes round, thou wilt be surprised to feel a new life springing up within thee ; and thou wilt say to Me in thy thankfulness, ” Lord, what is this that has befallen me ? Whither hast Thou been leading me, and what have I done ? I know not how it has happened, but whilst I have been striving to do for others, it seems as if I had in reality been doing all for myself ; in trying to heal them, I have been healing my own wounds; in seeking to console the afflicted, I have dried own tears ; in endeavouring to calm their griefs, I have lost the bitterness of my own ; in giving the little that I had, I have found all.”