Compassion

Sean Coghlan S.J.

"Lord Jesus, we pray that through our own troubles we may learn to feel the sufferings of others; help as to show them your compassion."

Divine office: Morning Prayer, Tuesday 2nd Week

One day, quite a few years ago, when I was studying in the University, was cycling through a forestry plantation with some fellow students. We met one of the foresters and we began to chat. He asked us if we knew Fr. William Stephenson. We did, of course, as he was a member of our community. We knew him by the affectionate name of "Springs", because, even at the age of ninety, he bounced along the corridor and up the stairs with a cheery word for everybody. The forester told us that, when he was studying in the forestry school, he and some of his friends used to go to Fr. Stephenson for confession. "He was a great man", he said. "We were very wild, but he had great compassion on us".

Another man with the gift of compassion was St. Martin of Tours. When he was dying the people around the bed began to weep. They begged him not to leave them. As the Divine Office reading for his feast says, "Martin was deeply moved by their tears which stirred the sympathy that flowed from the heart of God's mercy and he said 'Lord, if I am still needed by your people, I will not refuse the work. Your will be done'".

When Jesus brought the disciples across the lake to have a picnic in the hills, he found a great crowd of people waiting for him. When he saw them "he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd" (Mark6:30). The picnic plans were put aside and he taught the people and fed them and healed their sick.

Compassion is a feeling of tenderness, aroused by a person's distress or suffering, inclining us to spare or help. The Greek word used in the Gospels for "compassion" is derived from the word for our intestines or bowels, the place where our deepest feelings were believed to reside. Nowadays, we arc more inclined to see our hearts as the seat of our affections, of our tenderness and pity. So we pray "Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!" We do so, conscious of the fact that devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was introduced into the Church in the 17th Century because it was feared that "the hearts of men had grown cold".

For a while recently I feared that maybe our modern hearts had grown cold too. My blood froze when I heard that after a crucial Euro 2000 soccer match which England lost, some of the fans vented their anger, and, probably their envy, on a favourite hate figure, David Beckham by yelling at him, "may your kid die of cancer!". How could hearts be so savagely lacking in compassion? Had those fans ever seen a child dying of cancer? Could they possibly have meant what they yelled?

However, our century, thank God, is indeed not lacking in compassion. In the 1980's Doctor Sheila Cassidy was arrested by the Chilean police for treating a wounded guerilla in her clinic. She was tortured. When asked if she hated her torturers she said, "No. On the contrary, I felt a great pity for them. They were frightened men, frightened at the loss they imagined I was trying to inflict on them."

In a similar compassionate vein spoke a Ugandan woman I heard being interviewed on B.B.C. World Service. In the days of Idi Amin she was arbitrarily arrested and jailed. She was beaten every day. She feared at first that she would go mad or commit suicide. However, she forced herself to look and look and look at the men who were beating her. She began to see them as men with fears and problems. She found then that she could excuse and forgive them.

Here, with these women, we learn one way of becoming compassionate people. They turned the spotlight of their attention away from themselves. They replaced a concentration on themselves in their misery with deliberate concentration on another person. Compassion and concentration can be strands in a cord of love. Compassion can spring from the dearly bought ability to be totally present to the other. Concentration can become compassion if it is filtered through a sensitive and merciful heart.

In an article in "America" (October 14th, 2000) Fr. Robert E. Kennedy S.J. shared with his readers the Buddhist experience of wisdom and compassion. He believes this experience to be a gift of great value to the Church. He is a Zen Buddhist teacher. He says that when you study Zen you are doing nothing other than practsing a compassionate life. Zen is nothing other than "paying attention in a sustained way". Here are the significant words for our attempt to understand this natural foundation for compassion. "The teaching of Zen is really the act of paying exquisite attention to the person who is sitting right in front of you". To be able to do that, though, in all circumstances, to be able to overcome our preoccupation with tiredness, pain and anxiety is no easy task. We thank our Buddhist brothers and sisters for their insight and turn to our compassionate Lord for the strength and courage to act compassionately.

During his active life Jesus was compassionate to many. As he was dying he did not fail in compassion to those around him. He interceded for the men who were nailing him to the cross, asking the Father to forgive then, saying he believed they didn't really know what they were doing. As the afternoon wore on Jesus spoke to John through what must have been a haze of pain and exhaustion. He asked John to look after his mother, Mary, when he had gone. Finally, once more he wrenched his attention away from his own pain to focus it on another. We are thankful to the man on the cross beside Jews for this jewel-encrusted account of the ultimate personal encounter "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise".

St. Paul had to put up with many troubles himself, but, at the beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians he blessed" the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in ally affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves arc comforted by God".

Paul would have us join Fr. Stephenson, Martin of Tours, Dr. Cassidy, the Ugandan woman in their compassionate forgetfulness of themselves, as, in imitation of their compassionate Lord, they made themselves totally present to those who came before them.