Compassion is at the heart of the Gospel. It is central to the message of the great Prophets. Some aspects of compassion experienced as a particularly human disposition is the focus of this reflection. [Reflections on Compassion in the prophets and the gospels will follow in Part 2 next week].
To be compassionate operates at many levels. It is our extension of understanding to others, by ‘walking in their shoes’ as the Indian proverb has it. It is making allowances for others, and forgiving others. It is to suffer along with others in their pain and loss; this is a visceral feeling for the pain of another, not just empathy or sympathy - one is moved in the depths of one’s being. It is the extension of charity to those in need. St Therese of Lisieux says ‘that perfect charity consists in putting up with others’ mistakes and not being scandalised by their faults’.
A sure fire way of being enlightened about compassion is to find yourself in need of it. And then to find that your need is not met. Because you have transgressed against the norms and customs in such a way that you have to be banished, left outside the fold. That you have become a pariah. That you are considered unworthy of forgiveness.
To what extent do humans extend true compassion to the rapist, slave trafficker, sex tourist, child abuser, drug dealer, dishonest banker, rack renter, that is to people whose way of relating to the world goes against the grain of what the judgement of ordinary people deems honourable and just ? And if such people are tried in court, found guilty, sentence served, but re-offend even more on release, and seem irredeemable, does the river of compassion still flow in their direction or does the well dry up ? In other words, is there a limit to our compassion ?
When people take the high moral ground they do not know that they actually kick a person when he or she is down. In the need to feel and see that ‘justice must be done’ according to an understanding of justice which demands retribution, they administer a punishment to fit the crime. This is what we do as humans, but it is not compassion. Compassion does not condone what is wrong; in fact it is compassionate to call out evil, and refuse to be darkened by it. But compassion is able to distinguish the evil doer from the evil they do.
And it is a both a challenge to accept this, and a spiritual discipline to practice and apply it.