The Gentle Strength of Compassion 

We think of Christ extending compassion to countless others, including the man at poolside with no one to bring him to the healing waters, the Widow of Naim moving his heart to pity, Martha and Mary weeping with them at the mystery of death, the woman caught in adultery outpouring mercy, the Roman centurion with genuine care for an outsider, really all his healing gestures. Jesus’ admonition to us was to be compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate, and spoke of Himself with the maternal image of a mother hen gathering her wandering chicks protectively. Compassion is encircling.

Jesus, Himself, received the compassion of others. For example, Mary washing and wiping his feet after a journey, someone supplying a pillow in the boat, Peter’s mother-in-law rising from bed to prepare a meal, Zaccheus throwing a dinner party for him, the disciples of Emmaus inviting him to join them for supper at the inn. In its root meaning, com-passion means to “suffer with” another, to identify with another’s pain, loss or sorrow. It connotes ability to “feel with” another person, to identify with his/her sadness, even if our own disposition of the moment is happy; to rejoice in another’ success, even if our own situation is celebration of a success. Compassion is other-centered.

Compassion surely involves gentleness. It assumes a reverence toward another. Does compassion also imply strength and motivate bold action?

Karen Armstrong develops facets of compassion from all the major religious traditions. She outlines a “12 Step program,” which includes mindfulness--true attentiveness to the condition, situation and realities of another and of the world. She suggests these steps toward compassion as the only antidote to violence in the world. She also includes knowing oneself more deeply, as well as others in the world, making an effort to understand other cultures and our global neighbors. It obviously involves ways of speaking and relating to others--even to forgiveness of enemies. She references Dorothy Day as a model of making compassionate ideals--a practical, effective and enduring force. Compassion requires thoughtful courage.

Other thinkers consider compassion as essential to politics moving it from competition to collaboration; to science, moving it from mechanistic/materialist to organic and interdependent; to economics moving it from exploitative to mutuality; to psychology moving its approach from control to creative expression in multiple forms. After all, in manifesting dramatic compassionate care in response to the victims of the temple money-changers, Jesus manifested compassion in a dramatic gesture by overturning the tables of those exploiting the poor.

Pope Francis calls for and models a pastoral approach of mercy and has designated a Year of Mercy starting December 8, a feast of Mary as patroness of the United States. Only through an attitude of forgiveness can we surrender grudges, bridge difference, embrace all in the community of the world diverse in countless cultural ways.

Church writings speak of the faith that does justice. We might speak of the compassion that does justice, that is the strong motivator of actions for peace and justice. Within the concept of “integral ecology” is the call to have compassion toward all our brother and sister human beings, and toward earth species and toward the whole earth.

There’s a natural gentleness to the inner sources of compassion: the meek shall inherit the earth. There is also a fierce strength. True disciples are those motivated by Jesus of the Gospel whose compassionate and effective caring lead Him to death as “a victim of state violence.” It is the passionate pursuit of peace that begins at home, then moves to our one-to-one relationships and our memberships in ever wider communities and expanding circles of influence.  Let us begin by practicing kindness. Imitating God who is abounding in kindness, let us dare to live compassion, a way of life that will transform the world with a strong gentleness.

Dear Jesus,
meek and humble of heart,
make our hearts
the source of compassion for others.
Grace us with an unfailing willingness
to let our hearts be touched
by the needs and sufferings of others.
May we relate to the core need of all others
for genuine compassion,
with gentle strength,
a means to transforming
he hearts of others and the world.