O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Life is full of mystery. Especially people. We are all such mysteries. Yet there are these moments when we learn something about another person, and it’s like the light turns on in our heart of understanding who they are and why. It may be in our learning about their family of origin, their life history, their health, their abilities and training, their failures or successes. Whatever. And we have this “ah-ha” moment. It’s like a missing piece has been found in the puzzle of understanding this person… and their life now makes much more sense to us. Perhaps even what before had seemed to us a stain on this person’s character, we now can see is a scar which they have worn and wear well. We realize they are something of a walking miracle. You probably have had this experience. I certainly have.
The word in the scriptures that captures this deep sense of understanding another person is mercy, often also translated as compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion comes from the same root as the word for womb. Compassion is womb-like, for both the giver and the receiver.[i] Compassion safely, gently nurtures life. Estelle Frankel, a rabbi and psychotherapist, says that, “With compassion we enable all things to grow into their most beautiful and complete form, and with compassion we learn the wisdom of the womb,” how to hold, when to hold back as we carry someone in our womb of awareness.[ii]
The derivation of the English word, compassion, suggests something similar: 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 prophecy of Jeremiah, we read of God’s compassion:
And the Lord says: Is Israel my dear son? Is he the child I so delight in…? My womb trembles for him. I will truly show compassion towards him.[iii]
It’s the sense of God, as a mother, holding her child, flesh of her flesh, so very tenderly.
The words compassion and mercy appear frequently in the psalter. On Ash Wednesday as we began the season of Lent, we prayed for God’s compassion:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness;
in your great compassion, blot out my offenses.
And Psalm 23, that most familiar of psalms, ends with the phrase:
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”
What I find so touching here is this sense of God’s compassion, God’s merciful suffering with us and for us… not unlike how parents and other loved ones will suffer for and with a child, how a spouse or partner or friend will suffer with and for their beloved. This is God’s tender-hearted, long-suffering love for us. God’s mercy for us. God’s mercy for you.
We hear of this compassion in so much of the Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”[iv] And “when [Jesus] sees the crowds he has compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd.[v] The prayer with which we began our liturgy today speaks of this same sense of God’s mercy for us: “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy….
So I have a question for you. Where does the sense of compassion figure into the vocabulary of your own heart these days? Where does mercy inform your relationship with God, and your relationship with yourself, and your relationship with others? On the one hand, where you already have the gift of mercy in your own heart right now needs no coaching. You simply find your heart broken open for a particular person or relationship, someone with a particular background, or illness, or experience, or vocation, or cultural or ethnic heritage, or whatever. You have boundless compassion for them, a tender-hearted care, a generosity of spirit, a deep understanding. For some people, or some kinds of people, you are naturally compassionate. Your heart simply goes out to them. But what about where compassion might be blocked in your life? Where the pain, or plight, or bother of someone, rather than evoking a sense of mercy in your own heart, is more like heart burn. Where is compassion blocked in your heart?
Compassion, the gift of mercy, springs from the heart of God. These relationships with God, and with ourselves, and with others inform one another. By discovering the gift of compassion, of mercy, in some area, in some relationship, our heart will likely be mercifully opened in other areas, other relationships, too. The heart blockage will open.
How to convert bald pain, anger, disappointment, coldness, perhaps disdain towards another person into a womb compassion for them? I’m not talking about going into denial and getting all fluffy about a person. No. Compassion is as shrewd as it is tender. Nor am I talking about this person becoming a friend. Maybe so; probably not. Nor am I saying you will agree with this person, find affinity with this person, or even like this person. Nor am I suggesting that you not hold this person accountable. But I am talking about how to convert your own hard heart into a heart of mercy towards this person who is a child of God. It’s in your best interest, and in theirs.
Start with a difficult person in your life. Someone who is (literally) out to get you, or just someone who has a way of ruining your day or maybe ruining your life, perhaps without even knowing it. Maybe you find them “clueless,” or pompous or jealous or terribly insensitive. Find a place where you can be quiet, and you pray for them. Ask Jesus to shed light on the features of this person who has caused you such suffering, or irritation, or disappointment. Regard their qualities you despise or hate the most, or find the most repelling. Examine what makes this person happy and what causes them suffering in their daily life. Use your imagination.
Contemplate the person’s perceptions. What patterns of thought and reasoning does this person follow? They are probably following what they were taught, for better or for worse. Ponder what might motivate this person’s hopes and actions. Have they been hurt by their own experience of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, hatred, or anger, violation? What are they facing with each new day? Continue with this prayer until the eyes of your heart are enlightened about them, until you feel the trickle of compassion rising in your heart, like the well beginning to fill with fresh water… and your anger, or resentment, or repulsion start to drain away.[vi] And I think it will.
You might need to practice this prayer many times with this same person before you move on. And you will. Because this gift of mercy is of the essence of God. Mercy may infuse your heart through the very one for whom you have had such a hard heart. 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 we are prone to love others the way we love ourselves. Or the prayer for compassion may need to begin, not with some other person, nor with yourself, but in your relationship with God. Perhaps you harbor some real resentment or impatience or hardness of heart towards God in some ways. You may need compassion for God. It must be very difficult to be God.
The wellspring of compassion flows from the heart of God, encircles us all, and flows back to God: the circle of life. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the Middle Ages, says that when Jesus said that he came “to set fire on earth,” he was not talking about the fire of war and destruction. Aquinas says that this fire of Jesus is about compassion, which warms and melts cold hearts, incinerates prejudice, makes a kind of loving space for others.[vii] In this time so full of hurt and hate, compassion can make a world of difference. Seek the grace to know God’s tender loving mercy, and practice it with great generosity. Compassion, God’s tender loving mercy, will make a world of difference.
Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
have mercy upon us.
[i] The Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, comes from the same root as the word for womb, rechem.
[ii] From “Sweetening the Judgments; the Kabbalah of Compassion” by Estelle Frankel in Parabola, Spring 2003, p. 20.
[iii] Jeremiah 31:20.
[iv] Luke 6:36.
[v] Matthew 9:35-36.
[vi] I have adapted this “compassion prescription” from the writings of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Miracle of Mindfulness. See also the writings of the Jesuit teacher Anthony de Mello.
[vii] Matthew Fox writing in Creation Spirituality, says that “Compassion is a kind of fire (Aquinas says compassion is the fire that Jesus came to set on earth) – it disturbs, it surprises, it ignites, it burns, it sears, and it warms. Compassion incinerates denial; it especially warms and melts cold hearts, cold structures, frozen minds, and self-satisfied lifestyles. Those who are touched by compassion have their lives turned upside down. That is not necessarily a bad thing.”
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