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Your rod and staff comfort me

Once upon a time, an old Hasidic tale teaches us, the local Jewish congregation was verySongs of the Heart: Reflections on the Psalms by Joan Chittister concerned about the fact that their rabbi disappeared into the forest every single Sabbath night. Was he chanting with angels? Was he praying with Elijah? Was he communing with God? So, after months of this, they finally sent someone to follow him. The next Sabbath, the sexton followed to a cottage on the far side of the cliff. And there, the sexton could see through the window, lay an old gentile woman, sick in her bed and wasting away. The rabbi swept the floor, chopped the wood, lit the fire, made a large pot of stew, washed the bedclothes and then left quickly in order to get back to the synagogue in time for morning services. The sexton, too, arrived back breathless. “Well,” the congregation demanded, “did our rabbi go up to heaven?” The sexton thought for a minute. “Oh, no, my friends,” he said and smiled softly. “Our rabbi did not go up to heaven. Our rabbi went much higher than that.”
There are some kinds of pain that cannot be taken away in life. Loss. Hurt. Rejection. Disability. But those who enter into the pain of another know what it is to talk about the love of a God who does not change the circumstance that form us but walks through them with us every step of the way.

Comfort is a small and tender thing. All it takes is regular presence, patient listening and genuine concern. It demands that we go out of ourselves to the other in ways that advantage us not a whit.

The real question, come to think about it, is whether or not the congregation kept their old rabbi or got themselves a new one—for the sake of the faith, of course.

To go down into pain with another breaks open the heart of the God who looks among us always for the face most like God’s own.

       —from Songs of the Heart: Reflections on the Psalms by Joan Chittister (Twenty-third Publications)

The psalm verse Sister Joan reflected on is from Ps 23: “Though I walk in the valley of darkness, no evil do I fear. Your rod and staff comfort me.”