Sunday, December 6, 2015

2015.12.06 Where Is Compassion?

On one cloudy cold morning I awakened feeling grumpily ungrateful. It would be easy to blame the equally gloomy weather for my mood, of course, but my agitation went beyond the personal.

Thanks to the Internet, my mindset is getting global—such brain strain. Now my heart is, too. Creeping mental global awareness hurts, and spiritual globalization nearly kills the soul. There’s bad news everywhere. And it’s Advent, the lost season, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Advent warns : BE AWAKE, ALERT, WATCH. Good Godde, I feel like Chicken Little—so in need of heart-sheltering.

When we celebrate again the birth of Christ, will it make a difference? Will that seasonal spirit we call Christmas bring compassion into the world? Can it save?

Where is compassion? It seems almost a perverse virtue in the face of the world’s travail: shaken by apocalyptic terrors, violence, little children mutilated, daily/hourly murder of innocents, institutional abuse, parents capsized with grief, opioid deaths mounting. Good god, there is even a program of cathartic boxing for women —not for sport, but to vent their rage and grief. The tenor and energy of violence spread with the news, as if the strategy of terrorist groups had become our own, posing as mere retaliation of course.

Compassion. Is it dead? Is there such a thing as radical compassion, and had I felt a snatch of that—a compassion seizure, the kind that can grip your gut and wrench it free of sweet sentiments, recited prayers, empathic sighs, rote prayers, the kind that can make you feel a little sick. I suddenly thought: I bet compassion can spread like violence, maybe faster. Can it?


Yes!  This Greek word, limply translated “moved with pity” in the New Testament. I learned it in a course called Compassion with a capital C, taught by Henri Nouwen. We flocked to it. Okay it hadn’t much of a reading list, and Nouwen was a guru, but in truth all hundred or more of us seminarians were tired of hearing about compassion. We wanted it. We salivated for it. We wanted to be  Compassion. Oh, we knew only God had flesh-rending Compassion— but oh, we wanted it, too!


The guttural sound repeated over and over. Splawch! Ach!  The word is the strongest possible word the New Testament could use to describe what Jesus felt when confronted with the overwhelming needs of his world. “Listen,” Nouwen said the word over and over, jumping up and down, near-hysterical himself. “It’s the same root as the word for womb, your bowels!”


I was getting aroused, my belly tightened. I couldn’t take notes to calm myself. I couldn’t spell it!  Instead I distracted myself to recall the feel of a baby doing what felt like calisthenics in my womb. Was that the kick of divine compassion trying to get out?  But Jesus was a man. Never mind. Nouwen was near-apoplectic, and we all were right there with him, giving birth. He shouted. “You are pregnant with Christ. Can you hear all the loudly begging people? Let your gut be wrenched like Jesus’s.”   (Godde, it’s awful to be asked to be like Jesus, really!)


I wanted this scphlank-word. I also wanted this lecture to be over. It wasn’t soothing. I wanted compassion like this to go away. Others must have felt the same, because after the lecture  we sought relief in gallows humor, one way to cope with a power too great to manage: “Bowels of mercy gently pressing.” “Jesus shit.” 

My own compassion seizure, if that’s what it was, passed—and will recur. Compassion has rage and roar in it. It is not sugar-coated. It is a potent life-force. Compassion created the cosmos—splawch like that. Compassion evokes Magnificats, grand biblical hymns in the mouths of women whose wombs had been instruments of compassion. Compassion leaps alive in every willing—and unwilling—heart.

Beggars in the city are polite and ingratiating. They even bless my meager offerings. Sometimes I stop to chat. Susan’s husband had a work-related accident. They have two young children.  It’s not about drugs and alcohol, like everyone thinks. The family applied for housing, which will be effective this month. In the meantime, Susan sits on the sidewalk with her cup, wrapped in a warm blanket, to beg. Marcus is older and out in the rain with his handwritten cardboard sign. I know what it says without reading it: out of work. I ask, like a mother, if he wants my umbrella. All I have on me is a dollar. I apologize, then silently wonder if these folks should get the little machines that swipe credit cards. Marcus tells me there’s a laundromat down the street where he can dry his jacket. He’s taking care of me! So I give money and get a blessing.

“My son died, and I don’t know why,” sobbed a father. I read it on Nov. 28, 2015 in the Boston Globe. (The son was a bystander shot dead outside a bar in Boston.) His son died. He didn’t know why.  Don’t bury me under politically correct theology, please. A son of God died, and God didn’t know why either.

There’s not enough compassion in the world, or the gospel, to go around for these people—or is there? I’ve come to believe that what I periodically feel is a compassion that is buried in human flesh, planted there in the beginning. We might call it the image of God. Thomas Merton, monk theologian, called it “hidden wholeness.” Everyone has it; in fact, it is what humanity has in common—seldom tapped and never trapped, yet available when we dig deep to our inner core: salvific Compassion.

There is no original sin. There is original compassion.