Matthew 13:31-33, 44-49a
Fyodor Dostoevsky tells the story of how in 1852, when he was incarcerated as a political prisoner in Siberia, he was so disgusted by the drunkenness and violence of his fellow prisoners that he climbed onto his bunk and turned his back upon the chaos in the barracks room. For a long time he nursed his loathing of the other prisoners until there suddenly arose within him the memory of an incident which he had completely forgotten from twenty years past.
As a child of nine he had one day been wandering alone across an open field on his family’s estate when he thought he heard a wolf approaching. In his terror he ran toward the lonely figure of Marei, the serf who was ploughing the field. Marei quickly comforted the boy, stroking him on the cheek and murmuring, “Don’t be frightened, my dear. Christ be with thee. Cross thyself.” “But I did not cross myself,” writes Dostoevsky. “The corners of my lips quivered; and, I believe, that was what impressed him most. Slowly he stretched out his thick thumb, with the black nail soiled with earth, and gently touched my trembling lips… and he looked at me with a long motherly smile….”
And now, twenty years later, it was Marei’s soil-blackened thumb that Dostoevsky particularly remembered. “…and if I had been his own son he could not have bestowed upon me a glance full of a more serene love. And yet, who had prompted him? He was a peasant serf, while I was a nobleman’s son. No one would find out how he had caressed me and no one would reward him. The meeting was a solitary one, in an open field; and only God, maybe, perceived from above what a profound and enlightened human feeling, what delicate, almost womanly tenderness may fill the heart of some ignorant Russian peasant serf. And when I climbed down off my bunk and gazed around I felt I could behold these unfortunate [imprisoned] men with a wholly different outlook, for suddenly, by some miracle, all the hatred and anger had completely vanished from my heart.”i
Dostoevsky here is speaking about mercy, often also translated in the scriptures as compassion. This word compassion is the plural of a noun that in its singular form means womb: a woman feels compassion for the child of her own womb; many-a-person feels compassion for another whose story is, in some way, their own. “I understand where you’re coming from,” we sometimes say. So, too, the derivation of the English word compassion suggests the same: passion from the Latin patī, meaning “to suffer,” and the prefix com- meaning “with.” Compassion means suffering with and suffering for another. Suffering in a visceral way, in the gut, not just in the head. In the King James Version of the Bible, the word compassion is translated with that sweet phrase, “…for thy tender mercies sake.” We hear this tenderness in Jesus’ voice when he tells his disciples, on their way to Galilee , “Be compassionate, as your Father in heaven is compassionate.”ii
The word compassion appears frequently in the psalter. For example in Psalm 51 we hear an earnest plea seeking God’s pity and forgiveness:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness;
in your great compassion, blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness
and cleanse me from my sin.
Likewise, we hear in the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 119:
Turn to me in mercy,
as you always do to those who love your Name.
Here in this monastery we follow the monastic practice of beginning our “Offices” (those times during the day when we gather together here in the chapel to pray) with a cry for help. This plea for God’s assistance is something that has been sung by monks down through the centuries, a phrase from Psalm 70: “O God make speed to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us.” This is a bid for God’s compassion for us, God’s suffering with us and for us… not unlike how a parent will suffer for and with a child, a spouse or partner or friend, for their beloved. The image the psalmist gives us here is not hardly one of God’s toleration or endurance or disdain of us. Rather, it’s an image of God’s tender-hearted, long-suffering love for us. God’s mercy for us. It’s as if to say God knows what it’s like to be under our skin, the very thing we see and hear in Jesus.iii “When he saw the crowds he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”iv
So I have a question for you. Where does the sense of compassion figure into the vocabulary of your own soul? Where does the sense of mercy inform your relationship with God, and your relationship with yourself, and your relationship with others with whom you live and work and otherwise relate? If you know something about suffering, suffering in your own heart, and if you know something about judgmentalism – about your having a critical spirit toward some person or some kinds of persons – then you have almost all the grace of compassion. Because compassion, at its core, is about suffering, suffering with another, com-passio, and that comes out of the conversion of our judgmentalism. Compassion does not deny our clear perception of another person – our “take” on them, our being able to “size them up,” our being able to “see through” their gimmicks and games and posturing – but rather to see all this through new eyes. There’s this wonderful phrase in the Letter to the Ephesians, a prayer that “the eyes of your heart be enlightened.”v You may come to see that, in actuality, you are very similar to this other person, and this person, instead of being your enemy is actually your ally, your companion, perhaps even your teacher. If you find yourself suffering because of someone, and if you find yourself quite judgmental because of them, you have almost all the grace of compassion. So much of what is irritating in life are people inarticulately, desperately asking for help.
I was at a social gathering not long ago, a proper-type gathering for proper-type adults… except for one child who was also there, a little boy. And he was a terrorizing two-year-old, racing around, picking up food, dropping food, food on face, food on draperies, running, whining. The child needed a spanking, obviously, and how the mother could be so oblivious to all this was beyond me. I was now finding her more irritating than the child. She just stood there, calmly talking to me. And then she excused herself, turned toward her son who was across the room, called for him to comet to her… which he did with the disdain that only a two-year old can express on his face and body, and his mother bent down, picked him up, cuddled him, stroked his cheeks and hair, kissed him on the forehead, and then said to me that she felt so badly having dragged her son to this party. He missed his lunch. He missed his nap. He missed his father, who was traveling overseas. And it was immediately obvious to me, as it had been all along to this mother, that the child needed to be cuddled and taken home to his bed, not to be spanked. Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “Everything terrifying is, in its deepest being, something helpless that wants our help.”vi A person who, in your judgment, is irritating, disdaining, unacceptable, frightening, is probably a person who needs help, perhaps is crying for help. If you know enough to be irritated by them, you likely also know enough to help them, certainly not to hurt them more. Draw from the grace of your own memory about rescuing, saving them, through the gift of compassion.
I would say that compassion, the gift of mercy, springs from the heart of God. It’s some of what if means to be created in the image of God. If there is a difficult relationship in your life where you know real and off-putting pain or irritation in some form, then you probably almost already know compassion for this person, because whoever this is is already under your skin and you are likely already acquainted with their suffering. You’re probably very close to compassionate already. And for some of you, the prayer for compassion might need to begin with yourself. If the truth be known, you are your own worst enemy and the problem is that you’re prone to love others like you love yourself. Perhaps your prayer begins with yourself, to find a heart of merciful acceptance for yourself. There’s this wonderful parable of Jesus which we hear in today’s gospel lesson: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it.”vii What is the pearl? Or rather, who is the pearl? You are. You are the pearl. Now do you know where pearls come from? From the most unsuspecting of places; from a grain of sand, a wounding contusion within the shell of a mollusk, the most unseemly of creatures, found in the darkness on the bottom of the sea.viii A pearl is formed out of that wound. You, if left alone on a bad day or in a bad way, may see yourself as quite a lowly creature and a gaping wound. In God’s eyes, you are an absolute gem, of inestimable and eternal value, a pearl of great price.
It seems to me that the wellspring of compassion flows from the heart of God, encircles us all, and flows back to God: the movement of life. I would call compassion, this gift of mercy, a “life skill” learnable on our knees: to see ourselves as God sees us, which will inform how we see everyone else. In a time so full of hurt and hate, the grace of compassion can make a world of difference. May you know God’s tender loving mercy for yourself, and may you have the grace to practice it with great generosity.
i Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), quoted by Donald Nicholl in The Testing of Hearts; A Pilgrim’s Journal ( London: Lamp Press), 1989, pp. 22-23.
ii Luke 6:36.
iii F. D. Maurice (1805-1872)writes, “There must have been a Calvary in the heart of God before it was planted on the hill of Golgotha.”
iv Matthew 9:35-36.
v Ephesians 1:18.
vi Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), quoted by Margaret Miles in “Pilgrimage as Metaphor in a Nuclear Age,” Theology Today 45:2 (December 1988), p. 174.
vii Matthew 13:45-46.
viii The shell-secreting cells of the mollusk are located in the mantle of its body. When a foreign particle penetrates the mantle, the cells attach to the particle and build up more or less concentric layers of pearl around it. – Encyclopædia Britannica.
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