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Editor’s note: As part of our “Comfort and Joy” Advent/Christmas blog series, missioner Jeff Sved shares how his experiences of prison ministry in Bolivia have shown him how comfort and joy are often fruits of initial discomfort.

Francis – brother, not pope – is quite a remarkable example when it comes to the relationship between comfort and joy. What Francis regularly shows us is that a new comfort and joy often comes from discomfort.

I doubt that it was a comfortable experience stripping naked in the central plaza of Assisi when Francis renounced his wealth, possessions, and social standing. (Actually it was probably pretty uncomfortable for the watching crowd as well).

I doubt that it was a comfortable experience when he first kissed the leper (both for Francis and the leper).

But what joy came from that discomfort! “What before had been bitter had turned to sweetness!” A comfortable joy came from discomfort.

That may be a perfect summary of mission life – discomfort becoming not just comforting but joyful. Time and time again I find that what begins as the most awkward and uncomfortable first meetings (both for me and the artisan/carpenter/Zapatero) develops into a joyful friendship. Maybe there is something in the original discomfort that leads to joy.

I have also noticed that this new comfort will often lead to a new discomfort, in an almost cyclical pattern. Becoming comfortable within the structure of Bolivian prisons has led to a new deeper discomfort with the injustice of criminal “justice” both here and in the US.

When your close friends are inmates, you get the opportunity to look at the penal system in a whole new light – and I’m constantly finding I don’t like what I see (Reading the book The New Jim Crow has also been a healthily uncomfortable experience). It is an uncomfortable realization to see that we as a society and I as an individual prefer to ignore uncomfortable truths for the sake of our own comfort.

In recognizing this, however, I have been able to be present with others in the discomfort and the injustice, and in that presence, find a unity and a joy that comes with it. There are innumerable uncomfortable aspects of prison ministry and the penal system as a whole, but they are paired with the joy of sitting (often helplessly) together and sharing in that reality.

Question for reflection: During this Advent season, how can you push past your discomfort to reach the fruits of comfort and joy? 

*Featured image adaptation of photo uploaded by Wikimedia user Eugenio Hansen, OFS – Creative Commons. 

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