“I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”
These comforting words are sometimes substituted for the more typical expression of sympathy and consolation: “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” But what does it mean to keep someone in your thoughts? Should we say such a thing?
I suspect that the reason for the modification is that referring to “thoughts” can seem to be less contentious than referring to “prayers.” The former expresses sympathy, but softens the philosophical and theological baggage tied to “prayers.” After all, prayer is an act of begging. As such, it is directed to someone, namely, God. Since God and religion are treated as essentially private matters in our society, it might seem pushy to bombard a non-believer with promises of prayer. Besides, if the point is to sympathize and to console—to do a kind act to someone in need—then there is no need to get God involved.
But are thoughts adequate for consolation?
Here I would like to refer to the great 19th century critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche. In his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche offers a somewhat surprising criticism of his contemporaries. He argues that Christianity, which he calls the “religion of pity,” is opposed to what makes human life excel and thrive. His reasoning is simple enough. “Suffering,” he says, “is made contagious by pity.” Pity, according to Nietzsche, preserves what is most miserable in life and acts as a “depressant.” For what is pity but suffering because of someone else’s suffering?
Although I am far from accepting Nietzsche’s criticism, either in whole or part, one must admit that there is some sense to it. What if “pity” were set up as the chief virtue, as Nietzsche claims some of his contemporaries had done? The answer is simple: suffering and destruction would be seen as ends in themselves. In this way, so-called pity would exalt suffering as a good in itself. Nietzsche is right in saying that it is absurd to exalt suffering in this way.
For the Christian especially, sympathetic thoughts are a form of co-suffering. We take on mental and spiritual anguish alongside our friends and neighbors. To the ancient Greeks, true pagans, this is incomprehensible. The tranquility of mind which is the end of the good life seems directly opposed to thoughts which upset and disturb the mind.
But on account of the crucified Galilean, suffering is transformed. It becomes a subordinate and instrumental means of merit. It is not undergone for its own sake, but for the sake of something greater out of charity. Without charity, Christ’s suffering would not be wonderful, it would be sadistic.
As the inheritors of the residue of a Christian culture, we stand in much the same position as those Nieztsche was criticizing. They tried to have it both ways—to preserve the outer shell of Christian morality, while disregarding its distinctive religious claims. Thus, such pity could be easily disparaged by Nieztsche, since the willingness to co-suffer is meaningless apart from Christ.
But in Christ suffering gains an ontological weight. Uniting ourselves to the very Cross of Christ, we “co-suffer with Him” (sympaschomen) that we may be “co-glorified with Him” (syndoxasthōmen) (cf. Romans 8:17).
Now, if the promise of sympathetic thoughts is given as a mere formality, then one could make the gesture without the least thought of Christ. We simply need something nice to say— it would be terribly awkward to say nothing—and so we fill in the blank space with a Hallmark card. But if true consolation is intended by the offering of one’s thoughts, then it turns out that the philosophical and religious presuppositions behind such “thoughts” are even deeper than those behind “prayers,” because compassionate thoughts assume a theology of suffering which is distinctively Christian. If the offer of one’s thoughts in sympathy is to actually mean something in its own right, then this offering must be united with the cross, which alone gives meaning to suffering.
Let us remember that Christ Himself bore us in His thoughts in His agony in Gethsemane, and that He thirsted in hope for our salvation on the Cross. And the Apostle, too, bore the “the daily pressure… of [his] anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28). Indeed, such “slight momentary affliction” prepares for us “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17).
Image: Tsvetana Kalaykova, Tears – The Silent Language of Grief