By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
Since we have just passed through the season of generosity – gift giving, providing hospitality for out-of-town relatives and friends, sending an annual donation to your favorite charity and, perhaps, even spending some of the holidays donating your time at a local social service center – it seems the right time to reflect on generosity’s cousin: compassion.
Not everyone had a home and a loving family around them during the Christmas season. Some of our brothers and sisters live on the streets or in a shelter. Some are in prison. Others are serving in the military far from home. For many of these, their situation will remain the same in the New Year.
So, let’s take a look at compassion, for we need it all year long. Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, first into ourselves for this is where empathy for others is born. The virtue of compassion takes us into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish in order to feel with the other; it requires us to be vulnerable with the vulnerable. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. (I draw from two authors for this reflection: Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier.)
St. Paul wrote eloquently of this virtue: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). “Be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:32).
Compassion does have its ‘enemies.’ Coldness, hard heartedness, indifference, intolerance, and just plain mean-spiritedness come quickly to mind. Two fictional characters that warn us of these traits are Mr. Potter, in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol.” The French moralist, Vauvenargues, describes this twisted mentality quite well: “The miser says to himself: is the poor person’s fortune my responsibility? And so he waves away pity, which annoys him.”
Some signs of compassion in the world today:
Nationally: the efforts to make sure every American who wants it can have affordable medical insurance; successful efforts to raise the minimum wage in some States; the caring efforts of those who seek to keep immigrant families together; new laws to stop the scourge of sex trafficking. And a national connection to Globally:the number of medical personnel who, at the risk of their own lives, have gone to West Africa to help fight the Ebola epidemic.
In the work place: the culture of companies who promote and practice treating each employee with respect; being sensitive to a co-worker who is experiencing personal difficulties, for example the death of a loved one (a friend of mine shares how when her husband died, her colleagues went out of their way to offer their condolences – one even going so far as to present her with a Mass card); taking the time to help a new hire who is having trouble adjusting to their job; and so forth.
Biblically, these admirable efforts have spiritual effects: “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers or sisters, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Readers' Comments on the Virtue of Love
“How marvelous! To think that all energy, all desire, have their origin in and are love! It’s what a person does with all that that makes a difference in ourselves and in our world.” – Janet, Pastoral ministry
“Great to have some contemplative thoughts in the middle of a normal day!” – Vince, Lawyer
“Loving others is an interesting conundrum to many people. The illusion is that we have to spend most of our time looking out for ourselves. This is reflected in the way we are treated by others in society (rich and powerful people are fawned upon but are forgotten as soon as they lose their power, for example politicians). Unless you can focus on “doing what is right,” it is easy to fall into complacency. It is not that people don’t get it; it is that the entire process is so difficult. It is hard sometimes to “do the right thing.” Done correctly and to best effect, ‘helping others’ is hard at times. Nevertheless, it is very important to focus often on the ideal.” – Steve, Scientist
Marie, a retired educator and author, who lives in Lebanon, sent the following quote from the Lebanese artist, philosopher, and poet, Kahlil Gibran:
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, so shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.