ST JOHN OF GOD

Today, March 8th, is the Commemoration of St John of God (1495-1550).  He was a Portuguese-born soldier turned health-care worker in Spain whose followers later formed the Hospital Order of Saint John of God, a worldwide Catholic religious institute dedicated to the care of the poor, sick, and those suffering from mental disorders.  He is considered one of Spain’s leading religious figures.  Here is an extract from a letter he wrote that is read during the Office of Readings:

‘If we kept before us the mercy of God, we can never fail to do good so long as we have the strength.  For if we share with the poor, out of love for God, whatever he has given to us, we shall receive according to his promise a hundredfold in eternal happiness.  That indeed is a fortunate and happy way of gaining a profit!  Who would not entrust his possessions to this best of merchants, who handles our affairs so well?  With outstretched arms he begs us to turn toward him, to weep for our sins, and to become the servants of love, first for ourselves, then for our neighbours.  For just as water extinguishes a fire, so does love wipe away sins.’

COLLECT
O God, who filled Saint John of God
with a spirit of compassion,
grant, we pray,
that, giving ourselves to works of charity,
we may merit to be found among the elect in your Kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

GOD OF COMPASSION AND FORGIVENESS

In his book Confession: Looking into the Eyes of God (The Columba Press, Dublin, 2013) Paul Farren writes about the way we are all caught up in a wen of sin and comments on the way we need to confess our sin against those who are made poor in our society. ‘Exclusion of the poor’; he writes, is the sin that Jesus speaks about most. It goes totally against the compassion of God – the Father who waits for and loves his broken son in his fragility. (p.57)

‘God is compassion. So what better way of revealing that God is compassion than by ushering into the Kingdom all those who were made to suffer here on earth, all those who were unwanted, rejected, cast out, despised.  They enter the Kingdom of God, not because they lived better lives than the rest of us, not because they were more moral than the rest of us – but because God is compassion.

And the rest of us?  We will be lefty scratching our heads and wondering if we, too, might get n.  We will get in if we have made friends with the poor. If we have reached out to the poor and tried to relieve their pain, then they will turn around and invite us into their Kingdom. If we have simply ignored the poor, then how can we expect them to0 invite us into their Kingdom? They will – through forgiveness.’ (Fr. Peter McVerry SJ,’ Jesus, Social Revolutionary?’, Dublin, Veritas, 2008, p.123)

“You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.” (from the Jean Anouilh’s screenplay for the 1947 film, “Monsieur Vincent.”)

THE COMPASSION OF CHRIST – A sermon for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

‘This Sunday’s Gospel passage (Mark 1: 29-39: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012) gives us a glimpse into the compassion of God.  God is not distant.   He is not a stranger to us.  Our compassionate God is made visible to us in Jesus Christ.  “A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’  Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it.  Be made clean.’  The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean” (Mark 1: 40-42).

The words ‘moved with pity’ appear throughout the gospels and they help us to understand the compassion of the Lord.  Moved with pity expresses a movement of the heart much more profound than simply a feeling sorry for someone.  Instead, what is being expressed here, is a movement of the heart that goes to the very depths of one’s being.  “When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself”(Henri Nouwen, Compassion– A Reflection on the Christian Life, p15).

Jesus raises from the dead the only son of the widow of Nain because of this profound movement of his heart (Luke 7:11-17).  The Good Samaritan stops and takes care of a man in need because he was moved with compassion (Luke 10: 29-37).  This same movement of the heart drives the father to run toward his returning prodigal son, embracing and kissing him (Luke 15: 11-32).  “As soon as we call God, ‘God-with-us,’ we enter into a new relationship of intimacy.  By calling God ‘Immanuel’, we recognize God’s commitment to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer all of life with us.  The God-with-us is a close God, a God whom we call our refuge, our stronghold, our wisdom, and even, more intimately, our helper, our shepherd, our love.  We will never really know God as a compassionate God if we do not understand with our heart and mind that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’” (Compassion, p13).

This is why we need to meditate over and over again on the mystery of the Incarnation until all of its consequences penetrate our entire being.  We must be convinced, existentially, that Jesus is real and that I can have a personal relationship with him.  As Saint Augustine so beautifully affirms, “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances; to seek him, the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.”

When Jesus is just as real to us as he was to the leper that he cured, our frustrations, discouragements, fears and loneliness will vanish.  We are never alone, because our God is a God of unconditional compassion.  Our God is a God who is always with us.  The compassion of Jesus calls us to live our lives in the same way.

Something in our modern society is causing us to be broken and separated from one another.  Neighbourhoods filled with cheerful children playing in the streets have been replaced by the silence of isolation.  Perhaps the on-going exposure to every crisis in the world has caused many to become numb and angry.  “Massive exposure to human misery often leads to psychic numbness” (Henri Nouwen, Compassion, p51).  Community is the answer.  Left alone, modern man remains powerless.  Wherever the Christian community is formed and developed, compassion should be the result.  “Jesus Christ is and remains the most radical manifestation of God’s compassion” (Compassion, p50).

Throughout the history of the Church, visible reminders are given to us in the lives of the saints who strove to imitate the Lord within the daily circumstances of their practical existence.  Contemporary man is moved more by witness than by argumentation.  Such is the case of Mikhail Gorbachev who made a private visit to Assisi in order to pray at the tomb of St Francis.  According to a March 19, 2008 article in ‘The Telegraph’, Gorbachev said,   “St Francis is, for me, the ‘alter Christus’, the other Christ.  His story fascinates me and has played a fundamental role in my life. … It was through St Francis that I arrived at the (Russian Orthodox) Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb. I feel very emotional to be here at such an important place not only for the Catholic faith, but for all humanity.”

Both Jesus and Francis embraced a man afflicted with leprosy.  Perhaps we will never have an opportunity to do the same thing.  Nevertheless, we are surrounded with people with all sorts of needs.  Our family members, our co-workers, our friends at school, our neighbours and our parishioners; these are the people that are in need and these are the people that need our compassion each and every day.’

Fr. James Farfaglia, February 2012

WHERE IS GOD? – Richard Rohr

When I was on retreat at Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani Abbey in 1985, I had a chance encounter that has stayed with me all these years. I was walking down a little trail when I recognized a recluse, what you might call a hermit’s hermit, coming toward me. Not wanting to intrude on his deep silence, I bowed my head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him. But as we neared each other, he said, “Richard!” That surprised me. He was supposed to be silent. How did he know who I was? “Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t. Tell the people one thing.” Pointing to the sky, he said, “God is not ‘out there’!” Then he said, “God bless you,” and abruptly continued down the path.

The belief that God is “out there” is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Our view of God as separate and distant has harmed our relationships with sexuality, food, possessions, money, animals, nature, politics, and our own incarnate selves. This loss explains why we live such distraught and divided lives. Jesus came to put it all together for us and in us. He was saying, in effect, “To be human is good! The material and the physical can be trusted and enjoyed. This physical world is the hiding place of God and the revelation place of God!”

Far too much of religion has been about defining where God is and where God isn’t, picking and choosing who and what has God’s image and who and what doesn’t. In reality, it’s not up to us. We have no choice in the matter. All are beloved. Everyone—Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Muslim, black and white, gay and straight, able-bodied and disabled, male and female, Republican and Democrat—all are children of God. We are all members of the Body of Christ, made in God’s image, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whether or not we are aware of this gift.

Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters? This is Jesus’ only description of the final judgment (Matthew 25). But some say, “They smell. They’re a nuisance. They’re on welfare. They are a drain on our tax money.” Can we see Christ in all people, even the so-called “nobodies” who can’t or won’t play our game of success? When we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own.

Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all. Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are “saved” by faith—faith that this could be true.

Gateway to Presence:
If you want to go deeper with today’s meditation, take note of what word or phrase stands out to you. Come back to that word or phrase throughout the day, being present to its impact and invitation.

SABEEL WAVE OF PRAYER: January 3rd 2018

(Sabeel promotes non-violence and reconciliation based on justice for all the national and faith communities of Palestine and Israel.  It campaigns for more accurate international awareness of the suffering of Palestinian Christians as well as highlighting the plight of Christians in other countries in the region)
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Nine people have been killed in two attacks on Coptic Christians in Helwan district, south of Cairo, Egypt. The so-called Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the church attack.
Lord, we cry out to you to strengthen the Church in Egypt as it continues to lose innocent lives by the demons of extremism. We remember the families of the victims and pray for the recovery of all the injured. May this evil attack bring the people of Egypt closer together to confront exclusivity with inclusivity.
Lord in your mercy . . .

Last Thursday, Israeli naval forces opened fire on Palestinian fishing boats off the coast of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip. The Israeli naval forces detained two fishermen, Sameh al-Quqa and Shawqi Bakr, and confiscated their boats.
Lord, the Israeli occupation generates storms that deny our fishermen and their boats a safe journey back to shore. We pray for all the prophetic voices in the world to continue to speak truth to power and make the Israeli military siege come to an end. We pray for the release of the fisherman, the bread winners of their families, to be reunited with their loved ones.
Lord in your mercy . . .

On Sunday, about 1,500 members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud ruling party voted unanimously to impose Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. The non-binding resolution also called for the unlimited construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Lord, the extremists in Israel are determined to steal our Palestinian land and deprive us from what is rightfully ours.  We pray for all the people of conscience in Israel to exert pressure on the Israeli politicians to abandon greed and colonialism and recognize international law.
Lord in your mercy . . .

A new report, by the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, revealed how Israel exploits the West Bank to treat waste –  including hazardous waste – generated in Israel. In so doing, Israel abuses its power as an occupying power. It exposes the Palestinian residents – who are excluded from the decision-making process –  to environmental and health hazards.
Lord, we continue to be overwhelmed by the unjust and abusive actions of Israel. We ask for your spirit to give us the strength to continue the nonviolent resistance to bring the insanity of the Israeli occupation to an end.
Lord in your mercy . . .

According to a new study carried out by Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is the main factor behind the exodus of Palestinian Christians from the region.
Blessed Redeemer, of all the earth, we pray for your Church in Palestine. Stand with your Church and protect it from all evil and disintegration. May the women, men and children who are your body in this land continue to shine forth with the light of your love, truth and grace.
Lord in your mercy . . .

Last Thursday, sixty-three Israeli teenagers have published an open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, declaring their refusal to join the Israeli army due to their opposition to the occupation.
Lord, we give thanks for all our friends in Israel who refuse to take part in the sin of the Israeli military occupation. We pray that the voices of these brave young Israeli teenagers are echoed among many others Israelis. May love triumph fear and justice prevail for all the people in our land.
Lord in your mercy . . .

In a late night debate, lawmakers pass an updated bill that makes it harder to divide Jerusalem without Knesset approval. This latest Israeli law trumps president Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem boarders are negotiable.
Lord, the powerful continue to abuse their power in order to deprive the occupied Palestinian people of their inalienable rights under international law. Loving God, only your power of love can stand in the way of the power of arrogance.
Lord in your mercy . . .

We join the World Council of Churches in praying for the countries of  Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the Occupied State of Palestine.
Lord in your mercy . . .

(The Association, rooted in Divine Compassion, supports the plight of Christian and other minorities in this region)

THE BLESSED SACRAMENT AND THE INCARNATION OF DIVINE COMPASSION

After all the celebrations during the Christmas Octave I’m aware of having come to a period of peace when it’s possible to find time to listen more deeply to the Incarnation. The eye of the body has beheld Jesus within our Cribs and now the eye of the heart can begin to see the wonder of Emmanuel – God with us.

One of the books I’m reading at present is ‘The Drawing of This Love’ by Robert Fruewirth in which he explores aspects of the way Julian of Norwich realised how the compassion of God permeates Divine Love. In one chapter he quotes Julian saying: ‘Here I saw a great affinity between Christ and us … for when he was in pain, we were in pain.  And all creatures capable of suffering pain suffered with him … So was our Lord Jesus Christ set at nought for us, and we all remain in this way as if set at naught with him, and shall do until we come to his bliss…’ (Ch.18)  This led me to consider the way we can always be present to His compassion when we come before Him in the Blessed Sacrament. I find there is something truly wonderful about being present to Him as He is present to us when the Sacrament is exposed on the altar and long for this practice – of placing the Host contained in a monstrance on an altar where anyone can sit or kneel in prayer – to be more and more common. Here we can talk with Him or just rest with Him and know that He is fully present to all who come to Him. And then we can take Him with us in the tabernacle of our own heart for, as St Francis of Assisi wrote in his Rule of 1221: ‘We should make a dwelling-place within ourselves where He can stay, He who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

Dame Julian echoes this theme when she later writes: ‘The with a glad expression our Lord looked into his side and gazed, rejoicing and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s understanding through the same wound into his side within. And then he revealed a beautiful and delightful place, large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest there in peace and in love.’ (Ch.24)  As I read that I saw that ‘place’ as His Sacred Heart, a Heart large enough to contain all of us, enlarged by Compassion. This is the Sacrament of Love upon which we are invited to gaze, as Julian gazed on what was revealed to her. I find it a wonderful thing that we who have been made part of His Body can gaze on that Body which is lit up with Love – I see it as one might look on a building flooded with light both inside and out, throbbing with all the colours there are against the darkness that surround it – a darkness of both sin and a lack of recognition. This is what we are to realise as we gaze on His Incarnate Body shown to us in the monstrance.

So I love the idea of creating that inner-monstrance which is to be the dwelling-place for Jesus because I can then adore Him whenever I visit that place. I know few churches can offer perpetual adoration but He can always be with me and I can always adore Him whenever I choose to make this visit to my heart. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if more Anglican churches were able to offer this facility? Perhaps well-staffed cathedrals might offer this facility – I believe Southwark Cathedral contains the Tabernacle House from the Convent of the sisters of the Community of Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament which was founded in 1869 and ended with the death of the last sister in the early years of this century. Sadly I never visited this community and would love to find a way of continuing their charism. It’s exquisitely beautiful to come to Jesus in this way and be able to just rest with Him – ‘be there’ with Him who is in all places and fills all things yet who left us this way to realise His presence. It’s a presence that doesn’t require any words and the only effort is to focus attention on Him and Him alone. To be able to do this in places like Westminster Cathedral and Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place is a joy and I am grateful to those who make this possible.

So I wonder, might it be possible for individual churches to offer Jesus to us in this way – maybe just for an hour or so at a time? I did this when I was a parish priest and although few came it was such a blessing for me to be able to place Christ there on the altar and spend an hour in His presence. Could we not begin to develop a list – a rota, maybe – of times and places where this happened and encourage people to come to Jesus in this way? What a wonderful appeal to renew and refresh the spiritual life this would offer.

CHRIST THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD – some thoughts on the Incarnation

I wonder if you have an image of God? Many people do, even if it’s one they can’t believe in – that old man with a long white beard, the heavenly schoolmaster, the dictator who rules the world. Maybe a doting father – or even a loving mother. Or perhaps a painting you saw has left an impression on you – a painting of an ancient figure elevated above Jesus with a white dove between them. With such a plethora of images, some highly questionable, no wonder all three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, forbid the depiction of God. “But”, you might say, “what about all the images of Christ in churches?” Well, in a sense, they’re not images of God; they represent the human form in which Christians believe he clothed himself and as Orthodox Christians know, if God chose to reveal invisible things in visible matter then we honour God by doing the same.

In the end God remains a mystery beyond our comprehension so to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ begs the question – well, what is it exactly that you don’t believe in because it’s likely that the Church doesn’t believe in that either. Once you begin to define what God is then God, in a sense, slips through your fingers.  Nowhere in the Jewish scriptures (the ‘Old Testament’) is there a definition of God – the closest one gets is that remarkable statement when God said to Moses: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or whatever the original Hebrew words mean. Now that seems to suggest God is not so much a ‘thing’ as a state of existence that cannot be named. One might say that God is the is-ness of is, pure being or becoming. Some speak of God as an ‘ocean of love’ or the heart of a mystery and so on. But none of these expressions seek to define what, in the end, is and always has been beyond our understanding.  I know some object to saying that God is a mystery but that’s how it’s always been. It’s not a ‘cop-out’ but, as St Ephrem the Syrian back in the fourth century realised, only something greater than God could possibly define God and there can be nothing greater than God …  So perhaps we might say that ‘God’ is a useful three-letter word to identify what is unidentifiable but which men and women down the centuries and around the world have believed in. I know we like to name things as it gives us the ability to identify them but – whoever or whatever God is – it would seem God clearly doesn’t want to be identified because as the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  beautiful little book of that name said: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Yes, there have been other ways of trying to identify God – the Holy, Faithful or Wise One for example – but these are merely attributes people have used to speak of God. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc. Two of the most common ways of speaking of God are as the ‘most Compassionate’ and ‘all-Merciful’ One or the Holy, Faithful or Wise One, attributes which lie at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc.  But you cannot say God is this or that. God is not this baby any more than God is that old man. What you can say, and what the Church says, is that God clothed Himself in our flesh and wore the garments of this baby who grew into a 33 year-old Palestinian man. He on whom we gaze with the eye of faith is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. And then you would be able to say that what we see in Him reflects the nature of that which He contains leading Charles Wesley to sing:

            Jesu, thou art all-compassion,
           Pure unbounded love thou art.

But, more wonderful still, what we see in Him is a bright reflection of what lies within us.  We can reflect aspects of that diamond-studied divine compassion and love that dwells in Him; our being contains a reflection of the wonder He incarnates and which we are to reveal. If you behold glory in this child, that glory can be reflected in us, as the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, has said: “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.” Perhaps, them, we might say that the aroma of ‘God’ invites us to seek the ultimate depth of all our being, the creative ground and meaning of all our existence. Maybe, then, it cannot be said that God ‘exists’ as you or I do, and that simple, three-lettered word offers the way we can express the inexpressibleness of life – that which painters and poets also struggle with. The great silence where a Word echoes; the expression of all that is, has been and will be. The silence of love.. The eternal darkness in which light shines.

If, then, the baby in the manger distracts you
from seeing what lies in the Cave of Bethlehem;
that reflection of the depth of human life,
then look beyond and realise the potential present in yourself,
the mystery that lies in the recesses of your own heart,
Perhaps, the importance of this Feast isn’t just that we celebrate God’s incarnation –

it is the Feast of what our humanity can become.

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.

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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
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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.