Reflection on Compassion by Don Lydon
These are notes which I used to give my talk at the Annual Day of Recollection of the Irish Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in Emmaus, Swords, on 13th November 2010. You are welcome to them but I must caution you that they are speaking notes and not a lecture.
When using them I may have omitted sentences, or perhaps included sentences that are not in the notes. However, the general thrust of my talk can, I feel, be gleaned from a perusal of these notes and I do hope that you may obtain some benefit from reading them. Feel free to give a copy to anyone who may be interested in having it. Just remember......... I’m not a theologian!!
Donal J Lydon.
Who held a hand like withered claw,
As cold as clay;
But as I had no silver groat
To give, I buttoned up my coat
And turned away.
And then I watched a working wife
Who bore the bitter load of life
With lagging limb;
A penny from her purse she took,
And with sweet pity in her look
Gave it to him.
Anon I spied a shabby dame
Who fed six sparrows as they came
In famished flight;
She was so poor and frail and old,
Yet crumbs of her last crust she doled
With pure delight.
Then sudden in my heart was born
For my sleek self a savage scorn, …
Urge to atone;
So when a starving cur I saw
I bandaged up it’s bleeding paw
And bought a bone.
For God knows it is good to give;
We may not have so long to live,
So if we can,
Let’s do each day a kindly deed,
And stretch a hand to those in need,
Bird, beast or man.
That was a poem by Robert William Service entitled
Long ago when a Greek died nobody asked whether he was rich or poor, married or single, educated or ignorant. No, they only asked one thing about the deceased: “ Had he passion?” The Greek word is paskhein, πασΧειν, hence, passion.
Now, when we think of passion we may think of the Passion of Our Lord. We may imagine someone who is passionate about his subject or endeavours. We may think of “mad passionate love”.
Passion is an intense emotion compelling feeling, enthusiasm, or desire for something. The term is also often applied to a lively or eager interest in or admiration for a proposal, cause, or activity or love.
Passion can be expressed as a feeling of unusual excitement, enthusiasm or compelling emotion towards a subject, idea, person, or object. A person is said to have a passion for something when he has a strong positive affinity for it. A love for something and a passion for something are often used synonymously.
But the meaning of the Greek verb πασχειν means to suffer with.
The Romans called it passione and added a Latin preposition cum (= with) so it more clearly meant to suffer with.
And the English word compassion, meaning to suffer together with, comes directly from the Latin.
By now you may have gleaned that I would like to share with you a few thoughts on the subject of compassion.
To begin, I must go back in time and talk a little more about the Greeks.
In the course of every-day conversation all of us refer to body-parts metaphorically. Without hesitating for a second we say of someone who has changed his mind about doing something bold, “He’s got cold feet”.
If someone is born to the so-called upper classes we say, “She’s a blue-blood”.
If we object to something strenuously we say, “I can’t stomach that!”
And if someone is utterly devoid of courage we say, “He’s gutless”.
In all of this we are speaking metaphorically. We are not commenting literally on the medical condition of anyone’s stomach or feet.
The ancient Greeks spoke of the Σπλάγχνα. The splagchna were known as the “nobler viscera”. The nobler viscera consisted of the heart, the lungs, and the bowels. Together these were regarded as the seat of our profoundest feeling, our deepest emotion, our most significant reaction and response to human need.
The Greek verb corresponding to splagchna is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splach-nid-zoumai) and it meant “to be moved as to one’s bowels”. The verb was used to speak of bowels that had knotted, a heart that had broken, lungs that had gasped for air.
This verb was the strongest in the Greek language for compassion. When this verb was used its force wasn’t that someone was concerned or someone was sympathetic or even that someone was moved. Its force was that someone was so very sympathetic that he was beside himself. He wasn’t moved; his heart was broken. He didn’t feel for someone else; his bowels convulsed. He didn’t inhale calmly before making a comment that would cost him nothing in any case; he gasped for air as though he were drowning.
In the New Testament the word never occurs outside the Synoptic Gospels; and except for three occurrences in the parables it is always used of Jesus. In the parables it is used of the master who had compassion on the servant who was unable to pay his debt (Matt. 18.33); of the compassion which made the father welcome home the prodigal son (Luke 15.20); and of the compassion which made the Samaritan go to the help of the wounded traveller on the road to Jericho (Luke 10.33). In all other cases it is used of Jesus himself.
A word this extreme speaks of compassion equally extreme; a compassion this extreme points to a human need no less extreme. What was the need before which Christ’s compassion shook him?
Jesus was moved with compassion when he saw the crowd like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9.36; cp Mark 6.34). He was moved with compassion when he saw their hunger and their need when they had followed him out to the desert place (Matt. 14.14; Mark 8.2.) It is used of Jesus’ compassion on the leper (Mark 1.41): of his compassion on the two blind men (Matt. 20.34); of his compassion of the widow of Nain who was going to bury her only son (Luke 7.13); and the appeal of the man with the epileptic son is that Jesus should have compassion on him (Mark 9.22)
There are two interesting things about the use of this word. First, it shows us the things in the human situation which moved Jesus.
Jesus was moved by the spiritual lostness of the crowd. They were sheep without a shepherd. He was not annoyed with their foolishness; he was not angry at their shiftlessness; he was sorry for them. He saw them as a harvest waiting to be gathered by God (Matt. 9.37, 38).
The Pharisees said: “The man who does not know the law is accursed”. They were able to say: “There is joy in heaven for one sinner destroyed.” But in face of man’s lostness, even when that lostness was his own fault, Jesus felt nothing but pity. He did not see man as a criminal to be condemned; he saw man as a lost wanderer to be found and brought home. He did not see men as chaff to be burned; he saw them as a harvest to be reaped for God.
Jesus was equally moved, with the same bowel-churning compassion when he came, we are told, upon people afflicted with material needs.
His heart broke and he gasped when he saw people who lacked food. We aren’t talking now about the bread of life; we’re talking about bread.
He felt exactly the same when he came upon someone with leprosy. The greater horror of leprosy wasn’t the physical ravages of the disease, dreadful though these were; the greater horror was the social rejection, the ostracism; it was being shunned as the most revolting creature imaginable, the only sick person who had to shout a warning to villagers so that they could get out of the way. The result was that lepers banded together to support each other and care for each other and protect each other as much as they could. They formed a community of disease. “Ordinary” people were glad to have them bunched together, for then it was easier to keep an eye on them; to avoid one was to avoid them all.
Our Lord’s compassion drove him to touch lepers. In that one act he crumbled the walls of contempt and rejection and isolation. Who are the lepers (or near-lepers or somewhat lepers) in our midst? What do we do? Who are those, known to us, whom our society has shunned?
Our Lord’s stomach turned over again when he came upon two blind men. Two blind men, be it noted. In Israel of old it was said, “Wherever two Jews are found together, the whole of Israel is present.” In other words, when Jesus comes upon two blind men he is telling us that there exists a societal blindness, a communal blindness, a corporate blindness. Where is there such a corporate blindness in our society, in our community, in our Order? And as disciples of Jesus Christ, what are we to do about it?
Our Lord’s heart broke with compassion when he came upon the widow of Nain. Her son had just died. To be sure, bereavement at any time is distressing; but in the first century in Palestine a widow (her husband was already dead) whose only son has just died is a person who is financially destitute; she has no means of supporting herself. That is what distressed our Lord. He had to do something about it. What do we do, whether individually or by means of our political system?
A man whose child suffered from epileptic seizures brought the child to Jesus. According to the text of Mark’s gospel the boy’s father cried out, “Have compassion and help us!” Have compassion “on us”; not “on my son”, but “on us”. Who are the “we”? The boy and his father? The boy and his father and his mother? Surely the entire family? Everyone knows that a child who suffers from a major disability is an enormous disruption on the entire family. How enormous? I learned of an elderly man who was dying. He spoke of his disabled son, long an adult, and how the entire family had been disrupted endlessly on account of the disabled son. At the height of his frustration the dying man shouted, “That boy has ruined our life”. Don’t say that!” his wife shrieked, “Don’t say it!” But it was true. The man with the epileptic son who cried to Jesus for help already knew it. Who are such families in our midst? What do we do for them?
Do we really have compassion for others? Have we, as a nation, lost some of our ability to experience compassion? I believe that the media has led the way in blunting our senses and especially our capacity to feel compassion.
Let me give you just three examples of what I mean by a lack of compassion in the media:
Talk here about, (i) The shocking report of the death of the late Liam Lawlor,TD.....the Sunday Independent headline and the front page story (for it was ,indeed, a “story”) of how he died in an accident with a teenage prostitute in the back seat of a car while speeding through the red light district of Moscow! The only bit of the “story” that was true was the fact that he had died. There was no teenage prostitute in the back of the car...there was a multi-lingual business secretary in the front of the car alongside the driver while Mr. Lawlor was alone in the back seat. There is no red light district in Moscow! Even if the story were true could the editor not have waited until the man was interred? What compassion was there for his poor wife reading this story in the morning paper while her husband’s body lay in a morgue so far away in Moscow.
Talk about: (ii) The calls for our Grand Prior to resign because of a “mistake”he may or may not have made 30 years ago. Even the Anglo Celt which had always supported him now called on him to resign. Not much compassion there....one strike and you’re out! Now I know the man is tough... if he wasn’t he would not have been made a Prince of the Holy Roman Catholic Church but do we think he has no feelings, that he can’t be hurt? There wasn’t much compassion manifested in the media for the cardinal. We have all met the cardinal, we know he is a good man, but how many of us joined in the media-driven call for his resignation at that time without considering what would be achieved if he did decide to resign? I’m not asking you here to consider whether he should or should not have resigned, no, I’m asking you to think about how much compassion we showed.
Talk about: (iii) The horrific picture which appeared in one of our daily newspapers showing the body of a young man who had been murdered lying forlornly on a piece of waste ground. Surely his poor mother must have been heartbroken to see her son depicted thus. Surely she must have felt just as Our Lady felt when she cradled the battered and bruised body of her only son when He was taken down from the cross. Not much compassion
shown by that newspaper to that young man’s mother.
“The media nowadays purvey not so much information as emotion. Each day, the headlines seek to press our emotional buttons so as to engage us in a process for which we may be willing to pay. Facts are merely the raw material. The real media product is the anger or fear generated by the headline.”
John Waters, The View....The Irish Catholic, November 4, 2010
“Issues are no longer simple, rural, contained. They are complex, international, universal............distant. Because the individual is forced into an evaluation of issues that are so far outside his domain of personal influence, (or because he imagines them to be so), he succumbs to acceptance of readymade decisions.
Practically all the information available to us today has to be accepted without verification. We have to accept the printed word (or the electric word of television), or else disregard it altogether. And because man is a social animal and must needs communicate with his fellow man in order to foster this sociability, common ground for communication is often found only on current ‘news’. So there is this pressure to ‘keep up with’ the latest events, happenings, discoveries, etc. In the rush to remain ‘in the race’ (as exemplified in fashion, doing the ‘in thing, keeping up with the Jones’s, reading the research journals, etc.) it becomes necessary to accept so much that is readymade- by way of its decisions, and more unfortunately, its values.”
“My point in mentioning all this is that more and more, we have to take another man’s word for the truth or existence of an event or datum. ‘There’s nothing too much wrong with that’, do I hear you say? ‘We’ve had to accept other people’s words for things since the world began’. True, but my main point is that today, more than ever before,
(a) because of the sheer amount of information, and
(b) because of the increasing difficulty of verifying most of it;
That while we are accepting one man’s word about the existence of data, we may also too readily accept his interpretation of those data in relation to a cosmology and by transposition to a metaphysic which we may unwittingly make our own.”
The Human Person. Domhnall S. Ó Loideáin. Dublin, May, 1973.
Compassion is not a popular virtue but compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.
Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you too.
Compassion is a call, a demand of nature, to relieve the unhappy as hunger is a natural call for food.
Compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves.
Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul: where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.
“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little”.........
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive”........Dalai Lama.
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Compassion is the basis of morality”.
Sin is the antithesis of compassion. Sin is placing one’s own interest before the interest of others. Sin is striving to save your own life and preserving it at all costs; even to the taking of another’s life to do so.
Some define sin as breaking the law or defying conventional morality. This is how the Pharisees, for the most part, viewed Jesus and the accused him of being a sinner. But Jesus wasn’t motivated by the pious, religious, sensibilities of polite, “God fearing society.”
His sole motivation was......COMPASSION
He healed them by taking their sickness from them and into Himself. The suffering and sin and abandonment and peril of men not merely went to the heart of Jesus but right into his heart, into Himself, so that their whole plight was now His own, and as such he saw and suffered it far more keenly than they did. He took their misery upon himself, taking it away from them and making it His own. Jesus did not just sympathetically identify with the pain of others, he actually, empathetically, experienced their pain and sickness as His own. Their pain became his pain. Jesus did not heal them with an act of almighty power. He healed them by taking their sickness from them and into Himself.
So you see, my dear friends,
Compassion.................Is always needed
Compassion...................Requires a real human touch
Compassion....................Drives us to prayer
We think it a commonplace that God is love, and that the Christian life is love. We would do well to remember that we would never have known that without the revelation of Jesus Christ, of whom it is so often and so amazingly said that he was moved with...............Compassion.
I began with a poem and I’d like to finish with a poem, a very special little poem, or prayer, that I often read as I retire to bed. It’s called simply,........... “The Well-Spent Day.”
The Well – Spent Day
If we sit down at set of sun,
And count the things that we have done,
And counting find
One self-denying act one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind,
That fell like sunshine where it went
Then we may count that day well spent.
But if through all the livelong day
We’ve eased no heart by yea or nay,
If through it all
We’ve nothing done that we can trace,
That brought the sunshine to a face;
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost,
Then count the day as worse than lost.