Being Compassionate

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When the Lord saw her, he felt compassion toward her. . . . They said, “A great prophet has been raised up among us!” and, “God has visited his people!”

Luke 7: 13, 16

In his commentary on Luke’s singular account of the healing of the widow’s son, Luke Timothy Johnson notes the significance of the description of Jesus as feeling “compassion” for the widow. The verb which Luke uses is splanchnizomai, which is the attitude that Jesus enjoins on his disciples one chapter earlier when he calls on them to “become compassionate as your father is compassionate” (Luke 6: 36). He points out that this word we translate as “feeling compassion” is the word used in Proverbs 17:5 for “the inner emotion accompanying mercy.” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 118) Pope Francis has asked all of us, especially during this year, to deepen our understanding of the mercy of God and to allow our lives and our relationships to become more and more governed by that central disposition of heart. As Jesus points out in the gospel, compassion and mercy are the way we are most called to conform our lives to God’s.

The same verb that Luke uses to describe how Jesus is moved when he sees the widow is used twice more in Luke’s gospel. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is the description of the experience of the Samaritan when he sees the man who has been assaulted and robbed: “But a certain Samaritan traveling on the road came up to him. He saw him and felt compassion.” (Luke 10: 33) The Samaritan experiences a “fellow feeling” toward the injured man that leads him to move toward him rather than, as the priest and Levite, to move away from him and to “pass by on the other side.” The third use of the verb is to be found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. “So he went towards his Father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him. He was moved with compassion. He ran out and embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15: 20) The son who had run away from him now moves toward his Father. As soon as he does so, he discovers that his Father has always been “moving toward” him. This moving towards in compassion and mercy is contrasted with the attitude of the elder son who distances himself from his brother (and so his Father), seeing only the ways he is different and superior.

The crowd that witnesses Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son recognizes that it is in Jesus’ compassion and merciful action that “God has visited his people.” As Jesus enjoins his disciples, it is in becoming compassionate as the father is compassionate that we serve the love and presence of God in the world. The truth of the matter, however, is that living in compassion is not easy for us. We are not merely the good Samaritan and the prodigal son and loving Father, we are also the priest, the Levite, and the elder son. In day to day life, it is in our lack of “felt compassion” that we most realize the distance between God and ourselves. To live mercy requires of us that we cultivate in our hearts an increase of “felt compassion,” especially in those places where it is most lacking.

As Proverbs says: “To mock the poor is to insult the creator,/the one who laughs at distress shall not go unpunished.” (Proverbs 17:5) Mocking and laughing are ways of distancing, of “passing by on the other side.” If, as we believe, we are truly made in the image and likeness of God, then what is most true and natural to us is compassion and mercy. Yet, we know that there are many aspects of the human condition which frighten and repel us. Jesus does not choose to be with the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the rejected in order to model an advanced ethic. He does so because he recognizes himself and so his Father in them, because the poor, the sick, the rejected, the unaccepted and marginalized reflect “the creator.”

For us, however, there are always forms of human illness, deprivation, and suffering that frighten us. We spontaneously and unconsciously will do all we can to “move away” from it, to distance ourselves rather than to move toward. At such a moment, we are denying not only the reality and value of the other, but also a reality and its value in ourselves. The needy trouble us because we fear the degree of our own dependence and neediness. The loneliness of the dying threatens us because we move away from the depth of our own loneliness. We avoid those on the margins because we know the fragility and illusion that is part of the “acceptable one” whom we present to the world.

Mercy is not a virtue to acquire. It is a reality to be experienced. Yet, it shall remain unknown to us to the degree that we distance ourselves from others and from our own life. In Jesus, “God has visited his people.” In him, there is no distance between the depths and dregs of our experience and the reality of God. God has not briefly visited us for the weekend and then gone about his own business. If we are to know and to live in God, we must move toward God’s love and compassion in all its manifestations, the ones we recognize and ones we don’t. From whom do we move away? What in ourselves do we deny? The answers to these questions will begin to show us, as the Prodigal Son, how we are to begin our journey back to the truth that is God. After passing by the leper, St. Francis of Assisi returned and embraced him. In small but significant ways, may we, when we realize we have moved away from others or ourselves, return and embrace that other who is the fearful but compassionate face of God.

Nancy Mairs, whose years with multiple sclerosis have given her time to contemplate relationships of mutual giving, proposes a radically different ethic of extensive responsibility. Mairs observes that charity “is never nice.” People who give in order to be nice do not think of themselves as needy, the needy are others. To be harsher than Mairs is, the “nice” need the needy to be other to their niceness, but . . . the nice cannot acknowledge their need for the needy. Thus, charity turns into domination: the nice make the needy dependent upon them.

The relations of giving that Mairs imagines begin in a mutual recognition of need. Mairs’s counterintuitive insight is that  all persons have abundances, and all have lacks: “True, your abundance may complement someone else’s lack, which you are moved to fill, but since your lacks are being similarly filled, perhaps by the same person, perhaps by another, reciprocity rather than domination frames the interchanges.” Mairs certainly knows that these abundances “may not take a form you much like,” such as multiple sclerosis for her or cancer for her husband. Too often one’s abundance is suffering. But the recognition of suffering as abundance is one pillar of a charity that is not domination but reciprocity.

Arthur W. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, p. 149

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