Compassion towards Detainees

I read with a deep sense of shame, disgust and anger of the suicide three months ago of Marcin Gwozdzinski, a Polish detainee at Harmondsworth Detention Centre.  The report, in The Guardian, carried this harrowing account of the event:

“He was crying, begging for help from the guards, telling them to call an ambulance, that his mental health was an emergency,” said another detainee,  … “They told him he would get no help and to stop calling for an ambulance. He broke down like a baby. Still they did nothing.”

In view of this I have written a letter to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary to plead that the government show compassion to those held in custody.  I fear, as many do, that this is yet another example – and a tragic one – of the way our country is hardening its heart following Brexit.  I understand that we are the only country in Europe with no time limit on immigration detention despite a campaign by MP’s and others to impose a 28 day limit and only then as an “absolute last resort”.  These deaths leave those responsible – and, by implication, all of us in the UK – with blood on our hands, blood which, like the blood of Abel, cries out for justice.

COMPASSION – the biblical gift to the human spirit

Johann Baptist Metz, the German Catholic theologian (b.1928), argued 1 that compassion is ‘… a primary reaction to another person’s suffering.  It possesses a political dimension, in that a merely private attitude … is not enough.  And since it has to be exercised in the midst of oppression and repression, it has to become justice.
In the Gospels, Metz observes, Jesus is more attentive to the sufferings of others than their sins, but is very critical of the sins of hypocrisy committed by the scribes and Pharisees – the religious authorities.  Unfortunately, however,
‘Christianity very soon began to have serious difficulties with this fundamental sensitivity to other people’s sufferings, which is inherent in its message.  The worrying question about justice … for the innocent who suffer, which is at the heart of the biblical traditions, was transformed, …with excessive haste, into the issue of salvation for sinners.’ 2
            Metz pointed out that Jesus had been more concerned with people suffering than their sin and points out that the parable of the Good Samaritan has entered into the narrative of humankind’s memory.  The God whom Jesus reveals is one who connects with people because of his revealed compassionate heart from which compassion emerged.  Metz argued that ‘compassion’ was the only word which could adequately carry this sense of divine sensitivity to human suffering and a key word for a global programme for Christianity and the ‘biblical gift to the human spirit’.  Such an imperative demands justice and, if Europe embraced a political culture inspired by compassion it would offer a creative, inspirational landscape.  Although this might seem naïve any politics of freedom must move beyond a narrative of economic competition to the morality of compassion.    He quotes how the Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuría (martyred in San Salvador in 1989) wrote of the way the church, maintaining political neutrality, needs instead to express a passionate solidarity with the needs of the suffering poor. He described this as a spirituality of ‘open eyes’ that sees more and pays attention to the needs of the suffering regardless of how difficult that might be, for God is their friend.

______________________________

1  Sobrino, Jon, 2016, Fifty Years for a Future that is Christian and Human, in ‘Journeys of Liberation: Joys and Hopes for the Future’, ed. Maria Clara Bingemer, ‘Concilium: International Journal of Theology’, p.70

2 Toward a Christianity of Political Compassion in ‘Love that Produces Hope: The Thought of Ignacio Ellacuría’, ed. K. Burke Sj and others, 2006, Liturgical Press

Compassion and Contemplation

Compassion means to understand another’s pain at such a deep level that it’s like feeling it yourself. Many mentors have told me over the years that the essence of pastoral ministry is connection and presence, being with. One seminary professor liked to say that the most important thing in parish ministry is to love the people you serve. It stands to reason that anything that makes us more compassionate will enable us to enter more deeply into the ministry that is ours as pastors.

The question then is how to develop compassion, which is a bit like asking how we learn to love. Through intention, perhaps. Through practice, certainly. But Henri Nouwen and his collaborators point out in their book entitled Compassion that “compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.” In other words, it doesn’t always feel good. Nouwen et al add—and I think this is significant—“Compassion … is not as natural a phenomenon as it might first appear.”

I propose that contemplative practices can facilitate direct connection with other beings, in ways we are only beginning to understand, enlarging our capacity for profound compassion. If contemplative practice can awaken our compassionate hearts, it can help us minister to people—even, or perhaps especially, those we might see as annoying and maybe even try to avoid.

The seed of my interest in this subject was planted in something that took place some years ago, during a period when I was faithfully maintaining a daily practice of Centering Prayer. I walked into a crowded convenience store and crossed paths with a store employee. I was heading for the coffee; she was carrying some bottled drinks to the refrigerator. As she walked by, I experienced a powerful sensation that she was carrying a great deal of pain – not physical, but emotional – and I offered a prayer for her. I felt that same sensation again when I went to pay for my coffee and she was back at the cash register, and this encounter stayed with me for a good long time after I left the store.

What just happened? I wondered. I’d never experienced anything like this before. I sensed that it was more than just a matter of emotional intelligence, i.e. picking up on visual clues such as her facial expression and body language. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience for me, since it involved my feeling some of what I perceived to be her pain; on the other hand, it also felt sacred. Even after those impressions faded, I continued to reflect on what had connected us for those few moments, and how it was even possible.

Much later, when I had returned to the regular practice of Centering Prayer after a time away, I had another similar experience. This one was even more intense. While sitting with others in contemplative prayer, I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of the goodness of one individual in particular. To be honest, this was someone I had previously found rather annoying. But now it was as if this goodness were a tangible quality that was overflowing into the room, blessing all of us; the word that came to my mind to describe this person in the moment was “golden.”

Another time, while sitting in silence with a woman who had experienced real pain in her life and whose physical appearance bore mute witness to what she’d been through, I glanced at her and was overwhelmed by her beauty. Again, it was as if what I perceived as beauty was not a matter of looks but more a kind of energy that radiated from the depth of her person and had moved between us.

As we develop our compassion for the world, we become better positioned to lead our parishes in responding to those needs and fulfilling the baptismal promise expressed in the Book of Common Prayer to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” As Thomas Merton wrote after his well-known Louisville experience, “If only they could see each other as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. … But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”

Additionally, many of us believe that good preaching requires becoming aware of what the text might have to say to the particular circumstances in which we preach, and what the people we preach to need to hear. I think the perception of contemplative compassion has something to contribute in both of those areas, but especially in the understanding of who the people we preach to really are, what they are experiencing in their lives, what hurts and doubts nag at them, what they need to feed their souls.

I cannot think of any quality that is more needed in our world today than compassion, and each parish is in its own way a microcosm of that world. If a greater capacity for compassion is a natural outcome of contemplative practice—and it seems that it is—that is a wonderful and valuable asset for anyone in pastoral ministry. We so need that open-hearted connection to God, and to our people.

Catherine Kerr
________________________

Catherine D. Kerr is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, and contemplative photographer. She serves as rector at Good Shepherd Church in Hilltown, Pennsylvania, USA and is a graduate of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation: Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program. Catherine and her husband, Chris, have two grown children.