One of the fruits of the Spirit is compassion. How beautiful it is to see this work of mercy in others – and even better to practise it ourselves. Yet the powers of our age seem to be dominated by the ‘logic’ of crime and punishment as the only solution to human weakness, pathology and sin. Not only does punishing others not work, it can never be the way of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Our way is to ‘comfort the afflicted’.
Sean Caulfield tells us in his wonderful little book, The Experience of Praying, that in Luke’s Gospel (1:78), ‘tender mercy’ in Greek is diasplagkhna elous – literally meaning ‘through the bowels of his compassion’. For splagkhna are intestines and the compassion is intestinal; it is felt. When Jesus revealed the innermost depths of the Father, his inner mystery became an intestinal love; a love felt in the pit of the stomach, a lump in the throat, tears in his eyes and not simply a cool detached act of ‘charity’.
When in Mark’s Gospel a leper comes and pleads on his knees: “If you want to you can cure me” – Jesus splaggkhnisteis, choked up with compassion, touched him and said: “Of course I want to. Be cured”.
We are never more divine, then, than when, like Jesus, we are choked up with compassion for others in their afflictions and try to enter into their suffering. It may happen anywhere and should be recognised as a call to a prayer of love and oneness that out of our poverty, others might become rich.
Compassion also involves ourselves. Georges Bernanos, in The Diary of a Country Priest, has the dying young priest proclaim: “How easy it is to hate oneself – … grace is to love oneself in all simplicity.” The roots of self-hatred and lack of compassion can be very deep in all of us.
We need help in becoming people of compassion. It is the poets and mystics who often help us capture the spirit of compassion that enlivened Jesus of Nazareth.
Noted Jesuit spiritual writer Anthony De Mello is particularly insistent that we follow Christ’s compassionate way, not just by external imitation, but even more so by an interior conversion. A change of heart is at the core of discipleship.
May we, too, comfort afflicted hearts, ‘choked up’ with compassion for the afflicted – and be what Christ was. There is no surer sign that Jesus our brother is risen.
“You ask where compassion comes in, where guilt comes in all this. You’ll know when you’re awake. If you’re feeling guilty right now, how on earth can I explain it to you? How would you know what compassion is? You know, sometimes people want to imitate Christ, but when a monkey plays a saxophone, that doesn’t make him a musician. You can’t imitate Christ by imitating his external behaviour. You’ve got to be Christ. Then you’ll know exactly what to do in a particular situation, given your temperament, your character, and the character and temperament of the person you’re dealing with. No one has to tell you. But to do that, you must be what Christ was. An external imitation will get you nowhere. If you think that compassion implies softness, there’s no way I can describe compassion to you, absolutely no way, because compassion can be very hard … Compassion can jolt you, compassion can roll up its sleeves and operate on you. Compassion is all kinds of things. Compassion can be very soft, but there’s no way of knowing that. It’s only when you become love – in other words, when you have dropped your illusions and attachments – that you will ‘know’.” – Anthony de Mello SJ.
This article is part of a series of Lenten reflections entitled A Spirit of Mercy: Reflections on the Works of Mercy by Br Mark O’Connor FMS.
Br Mark O’Connor FMS is the Vicar for Communications in the Diocese of Parramatta.