This past week I have been pondering the notion of compassion. The notion first struck me as I visited one of our parishioners at the hospital several times. Each time I have visited, someone else had already visited or was on their way to visit. Having been to many a hospital room, I know this is not the norm. Often, people in the hospital are there without much support. To see the community rally around this parishioner – both fellow parishioners and personal friends – was such a potent witness to the power of compassion.
Midweek, our own parish began to wonder how we might show compassion to our neighbors in need who were struggling due to government shutdown furloughs. As we shared ideas as a community, and as we checked on our own parishioners, we discovered that several of our parishioners were already acting on behalf of our neighbors in need. In fact, several parishioners were quietly gathering funds to support our local Coast Guard members. I was so proud to learn about the quiet, unassuming compassion of our church.
Finally, my daughter and I paid a visit to a Children’s hospital for some routine checkups. As we were waiting in three different waiting rooms, we watching families pass us by with children who were much sicker, or who had challenges that I will never face with my children. I found myself humbled by journeys I could not imagine, and wondering how I might move from sympathy to compassion.
My ponderings reminded me of something Father Gregory Boyle articulated in his book Tattoos on the Heart. Father Gregory teaches a class in the local prisons, and in one of the classes they talked about the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. As the inmates discussed the topic, they agreed that sympathy is the expression of sadness for something someone is experiencing. They defined empathy as going a step further and sharing how your own similar experience makes your sympathy more personal. But compassion was a bit harder to define. Father Gregory argues, “Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.”[i]
I wonder how God is inviting you this week to step beyond sympathy and empathy, and step into compassion. That kind of work is not easy, and will likely mean getting a bit messy. But I suspect that same kind of work takes us from looking at the world around us and saying, “That’s too bad,” or “I’m so sorry,” to “Let me walk with you.” That is the sacred spot where we experience God between us. I look forward to hearing about your experiences of accepting God’s invitation to compassion this week.
[i] Father Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010), 75.