“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. ...Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” Henri J.M. Nouwen
Henri J.M. Nouwen is one of the main ‘teachers’, sources used in Chaplain training, CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education, that is required of all Unitarian Universalist ministers. We are asked to identify what role we identify with. I no longer remember all the others; I only remember that the symbology of midwife is what felt right to me. Being with someone in the ‘betwixt and between’, journeying from one stage to the next. It feels a bit like what I do here now in this church. The former building and ways of being in it are gone, and though we’re making great progress on what the new building and ways to be together and in the community will be, they are still not yet ‘set in stone.’ New ways to have shared ministry, between the professional minister and the congregants, will also emerge.
Our theme this month is compassion, and I will use the rest of my space here sharing resources from the Touchstones program.
“We affirm that justice must prevail in human relations; that justice is the basis for the world we would create. We begin with justice because, based on the rule of law, it establishes the common ground upon which we all stand. Through the application of justice, we submit to laws that govern our behavior. We are, we say, a nation of laws, which affirms that no one is above the law. With regard to people, we say that justice is blind, but justice must often go beyond the law, especially with unjust laws. Theologian Joseph Sittler wrote, “Justice is love operating at a distance.” Such love is a tough love, a love practiced in detachment. Because of this, justice is significant, but not sufficient.
Compassion comes from two Latin roots: com meaning “together” and pati meaning “to suffer.” Through compassion we suffer with others. Unitarian Universalist minister Charlotte Cowtan writes, “Compassion is an act of human will; it is born of the recognition, acceptance, and celebration of the essential kinship of all humanity. When we choose to recognize that each human being is imbued with innate worth and dignity [our first principle], to accept with humility the fact that each one of us is both mortal and less than perfect, and to express our sincere gratitude for the gift of each and every human life, human hearts become joined in compassion.”
Compassion is relational. It is part of a continuum that begins with sympathy—feeling pity for—and moves to empathy—feeling with. We are born with a disposition toward compassion, with what Ram Dass has called “natural compassion.” For most of us, this disposition must be cultivated and deepened.
Compassion first tends to occur interpersonally. We witness another’s pain and suffering and are moved to feel, to care, to act. The difference between pity and compassion is vast. Pity is hierarchical. We are moved, but it is from a position of superiority. Compassion is a response among equals, and true compassion affirms that we are all fundamentally equal based on the our inherent worth and dignity. Through compassion, we respond to the other as if he or she is us, because in fundamental ways, given the unity that makes us one, the other is us.
Ultimately, compassion asks more of us. This more is articulated in our second source: Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. In every age they arise, some known to history and revered as exemplars—people for us to emulate in word, deed, and spirit. Some did truly great things using the transforming power of love; others did small things with great love. May our compassion embrace the oppressed, the downtrodden, the marginalized, the poor, and more. May our compassion inform our action as we circle round to the work of justice: justice, equity, compassion—and so it goes.
Keeping the Faith,