Called to Compassion


As I write this reflection, it is the last day of February ~ Leap Day! ~ and the eve of the primary elections in Vermont and so many other states. This election cycle seemed to start earlier than any I recall, and it has been a rough one. It’s hard for me to believe that the increasing vitriol in national debates and between supporters of various candidates on the same side of the political divide in any way serves the greater good, and I admit that though I’m something of a political junky, I’ve grown weary this time around.

As it happens, this writing also finds us right in the middle of the ecclesiastical season of Lent. Lent, the season in the church that runs from Ash Wednesday through Easter (February 10 through March 27 this year), is often understood to be time of reflection and repentance. As we walk with Jesus through the last season of his earthly life, we’re invited to contemplate our own spiritual path and the ways in which we might draw closer to God. Somehow, the confluence of election season with this time of repentance seems significant.

It’s my habit to try to spend the season of Lent working on a particular spiritual discipline. This year, I have a particular book of devotional writings that I’ve been reading, but I have also been pondering, praying about and writing about compassion. The word compassion is related to the word passion, which in Christian tradition is the term used to designate the suffering and death of Jesus on what we call “Good Friday.” So if passion has to do with suffering, compassion in its essence means feeling the suffering of others right along with them. And this ties into the political season because frankly it has seemed to be in short supply.

Across all three of the Abrahamic faith traditions, there is a value placed on compassion. In Judaism, it’s one of the chief attributes of the Divine, and a moral obligation of humanity. In Islam, a compassionate awareness of suffering is the reason behind the celebration of Ramadan, in which the devout are expected to fast not simply for the sake of their own spiritual growth, but specifically so that they can give the money they don’t spend on food to people who live in poverty. In Christianity, Jesus calls us to love not only our neighbor but also our enemy. His compassion is what leads him to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and befriend the outcasts of his society. Basically, anytime we are not being compassionate, we are actively failing to follow the divine dictates of these any most other faiths.

“Altruism has always been one of biology’s deep mysteries. Why should any animal, off on its own, specified and labeled by all sorts of signals as its individual self, choose to give up its life in aid of someone else? At first glance, it seems an unnatural act, a violation of nature, to give away one’s life or even one’s possessions, to another. And yet, in the face of improbability, examples of altruism abound. I maintain, despite the moment’s evidence against the claim, that we are born and grow up with a fondness for each other, and we have genes for that. We can be talked out if it, for the genetic message is like a distant music and some of us are hard-of-hearing. Societies are noisy affairs, drowning out the sound of ourselves and our connection. … Nonetheless, the music is there, waiting for more listeners.”
(from Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by Lewis Thomas, Viking Press, 1983, pp 101, 105.)
We are called to compassion. May this season of Lent find us repenting from rancor and growing ever more courageous in our compassion.

In faith,