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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

ADORATION OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT AND SILENT PRAYER

Many people do not know of the riches that are to be found in periods of silent adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of His Body and Blood.  The small, white consecrated Host placed in the monstrance contains the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph.1:23) and saints down the ages have adored Him who is present to us.  “What wonderful majesty!” declared St Francis of Assisi, “What stupendous condescension! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the whole universe, God and the Son of God, should humble Himself like this under the form of a little bread, for our salvation … In this world I cannot see the Most High Son of God with my own eyes, except for His Most Holy Body and Blood.” (Letter to a General Chapter)

ADORATION OF JESUS
When we place ourselves in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament we place ourselves before the gaze of Christ who loves us and wants us to know that love.  As St John says, ‘This is what love really is: not that we have loved God but that he loved us.  We love because he loved us first.(1 John 4:10f)  When we celebrate the Eucharist we are taking the first step to being caught up in the divine life.  As with the Prodigal Son, as soon as God sees us coming home and, a long way before we even get home, God comes rushing up to welcome and embrace us and we need to let our heart welcome His extravagant, self-risking love that flows from heaven.

In the silence of the Eucharist we taste and enter the silence of the Father from whom the Word eternally springs.  In Andre Rublev’s icon of the Trinity the three Persons are gathered around the Eucharist and we, who gaze upon it, are the fourth.  We are enfolded into the silent, loving gaze of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit upon each other uniting each to the other and to the one who is before them.

St Jean Marie Vianney, the Cure of Ars in France, tells of asking an old farmer why he came into the church every day to sit before the tabernacle: “I look at Him” he replied “and He looks at me and we tell each other that we love each other.”  This is the prayer of loving regard which seeks to fulfill Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart and mind and strength. And, in order to realise this command, we need to be still, silent and attentive on God.

SILENCE BEFORE GOD
Silence is a rare gift in today’s world. Those who live alone can experience enforced silence and crave for communication with another human being. T. S. Eliot recognized the emptiness that we can know when silence suddenly descends:

As, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too
long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness
deepen.

But there is another type of silence, a silence we can long for, when all those competing voices cease, the silence that comes at the end of a war or when two lovers let go of each other’s bodies and rest.  Silence can provide the space in which we realise what is present, the silence that is sought by those who desire to prevent themselves being distracted from attending to the great silence in which God is present.  As St Teresa of Calcutta wrote:

‘We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence.  See how nature — trees, flowers, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.’ (‘Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta)

This is a reminder of the way Elijah encountered God in silence after he had fled to the cave on Mt. Horeb to escape his persecutors: ‘God said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.’ (1 Kings 19:11-12) 

PAYING ATTENTION TO THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST
St Benedict, who also sought out desert places, used two words for silence: quies and silentium.  Quies is quiet, physical silence, an absence of noise – not banging doors, not coughing or unwrapping sweet papers.  It is a physical self-restraint that respects the presence of other people.  Silentium, however, is not an absence of noise but an attitude of consciousness turned towards others or to God.  It is attention, and what greater attention can we pay to God than that which we give in the presence of the Eucharistic Presence. As Mary Oliver wrote:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed. (The Summer Day)

To listen deeply, to give oneself in the act of attention is in fact not to judge, or fix or condemn but to love.  There is indeed nothing so much like God as silence because God is love. Meister Eckhart, the 13thc. German mystic, knew how God is clothed in silence: ‘It is the nature of a word to reveal what is hidden.  The word that is hidden still sparkles in the darkness and whispers in the silence.  It entices us to pursue and to yearn and sigh after it.  For it wishes to reveal to us something about God.’

This silence is not the absence of noise but the abode of God.

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation my fortress; I shall never be shaken
Psalm 62 : 1 – 2

Religious, especially contemplatives, have always recognised the importance giving themselves to long periods of silence, a silence that is lovingly welcomed and which interweaves the rhythm of their days, weeks and months. These act as reminders of the importance of giving loving attention to God and remind us of Jesus’ words to Martha when she complained about the way her sister was simply sitting at his feet: “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41f)

Eckhart doesn’t say God likes silence or likes silent worshippers but that God is like silence.  St Teresa of Avila said that ‘silence is God speaking to us.  It is like God as nothing else is. When we pay attention to God we come to know that God is paying attention to us. Indeed it is God’s attention to us that allows us to pay attention to God.

Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher. All you can do is
Be there where he is like to appear, and
Wait.
Often nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
Expectancy.
No visible signs, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared
But when you’ve almost stopped
Expecting it, a flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.  (Ann Lewin)

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‘The tree of silence bears the fruit of peace.’  Arabian proverb

‘The heavenly Father has spoken one Word: It was His Son. And He speaks it eternally in an eternal silence. And it is in silence that it can be heard by the soul.’  St John of the Cross, Watchword 217

‘Preserve spiritual peace by lovingly gazing upon God. If you must speak, do so with the same calm and peace.’  St John of the Cross, Watchword 198

‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’  Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY 2018

18TH – 25TH JANUARY 2018
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Pray for the unity of all the Christian Churches:

Thursday, Jan. 18th     Chair of St Peter                                 Orthodox

Friday, Jan. 19th          St Wulfstan, Bp                                   Roman

Saturday, Jan. 20th     Ss Fabian Pp & Sebastian, MM         Oriental

3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME                                          Anglican

Monday, Jan. 21st       St Vincent DcnM                                 Lutheran

Tuesday, Jan. 23rd      Feria                                                      Methodist

Wednesday, Jan. 24th St Francis de Sales BDr                     Reformed

Thursday, Jan. 25th     CONVERSION OF ST PAUL               Protestant

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Eternal Father,
we praise you for sending your Son
to be one of us and to save us.
Look upon your people with mercy,
for we are divided in so many ways,
and give us the Spirit of Jesus to make us one in love.

We ask this gift, loving Father,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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.