Living in a world where hatred and fear, prejudice and bigotry are all-too prevalent, people of faith need to counter this with compassion. It’s a virtue that has always needed to be cultivated in the face of mercilessness, cruelty and animosity. Of course we can become oblivious to the need for compassion. Or we turn our backs on the needs of others because of the cost. But compassion is active, not passive. It is not the same as having kind thoughts or not speaking out for fear of causing offence. “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” (1) A world without this virtue would be a dark, cold and lifeless place.
However there’s a growing body of evidence which suggests that compassion is programmed within us – we have a “compassionate instinct.” (Dacher Keltner, University of California, Berkeley) It might, therefore, be a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival and to ignore it or turn from it might ultimately lead to our de-humanisation. As Charles Darwin observed: “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.” (‘The Descent of Man’ p.72)
COMPASSION is certainly one of our most appealing traits, which may be why those who cannot show it tend not to find a partner! It can also broaden our perspective on the world and when a life is rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning it can be far more rewarding. ‘Compassion provides the backdrop against which our lives have meaning and purpose.’ (the Rev. Dr. Scott Peddie; Logotherapist) And, just like other positive human responses, compassion is contagious: when exercised it creates improvements in psychological well-being and social connection – not least with children.
COMPASSION is something the saints have taught us to nurture. It is a necessary aspect of what S. Benedict (480-543AD) recognised as the need for conversio (or conversatio) morum – a continuous conversion of life. In his Rule he stipulated that Psalm 95, the Venite, with its refrain of: “harden not your hearts” be used every morning. S. Bernard (1090-1163) said that Christ is our primary teacher of compassion because He willed His passion so that we could learn compassion. S. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote of how compassion can mitigate the suffering of a friend. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “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.” (3)
It is the second of the great Virtues and in a world where hatred and resentment, hostility and fear of the other are ever present, one needing to be cultivated. In the Roman Catholic Church devotion to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary acts as a focus for Divine Compassion. In the Church of England this focus began to be realised in the 19th century with the emergence of the first Franciscan community, the Society of Divine Compassion (from which the Society of S. Francis emerged). More recently the Feast has been recognised in the Church of England and observed on the Friday after the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday. Today teachers of Mindfulness place a great emphasis on the importance of compassion*.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
We tend to think of the heart as either the physical, vital, beating organ, or as the place where our emotions reside – or as the central part of something – the heart of the matter. “Heart” (Heb: lebab/leb/ לֵב; Gk. kardia καρδία) is the most often quoted anthropological term in the Bible but it does not refer to the physical pump that drives the blood. Nor does it simply refer to the seat of the emotions, our feelings. ‘In the biblical world it more likely meant the affective centre of our being and the place where moral desires are formed. In Hebrew, the heart is the center of human thought and spiritual life. We tend to think that the heart refers mainly to our emotions, but in Hebrew it also refers to one’s mind and thoughts as well.’ (Lois Tverberg) Someone described that as “desire-producer that makes us tick” (G. Archer), the place from which we establish who we really are.
We are part of a world-wide network of groups, movements and organisations which are seeking, in different ways, to encourage, nurture and promote the virtue of Compassion. Amongst them we are proud to be a member of the CHARTER FOR COMPASSION, founded in 2008 by Karen Armstrong who been given the 2008 TED Prize. The Charter states: ‘We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.’
We encourage you to sign the Charter.
(1) Attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor and theologian, hung at Flossenburg Concentration Camp in April 1945 for his part in the plot to kill Hitler.
(2) ‘The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness’. Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, Jeremy Adam Smith. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010
(3) ‘Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life’. Henri Nouwen. DLT 2006. ISBN 0385517521