Two friends were once fighting in the same battalion close to the enemy line when one of them failed to return. The other asked for permission to go out and look for him. But the officer did not want him to risk his life as his friend was probably dead. Nevertheless, the other went and returned a short while later mortally wounded and carrying the body of his dead friend. The officer was furious: “I told you he was dead and now I’ve lost both of you. Was it worth going out to bring in a corpse?” “Yes”, the dying man replied, “when I got there, he was still alive and his last words were, ‘I knew you’d come.’”
A compassionate heart cannot help expressing itself in deeds of love. It expresses itself in action as well as in words.
Compassion is not just a sense of pity or sympathy, but a deeper sense of sharing with and entering into the “passion” of another human being. To say, “I’ll pray for you” is one thing; to address the reality of that prayer in deeds of love is, in facts, the test.
A Compassionate God
In Jesus we see the fullness of God’s compassion. God truly “with us” (Matt 1: 23, 28: 20 ), having a human face and a human heart, sharing our flesh and blood. In the man of Jesus, God became a partner and a companion in our human condition—weak, vulnerable, fragile. Like us “in every respect,” (Heb 4:15) we are told, especially the things that make us most human, our tears and laughter our fears and joys, our hopes and disappointments. This was compassion in its truest sense, a sharing in the whole broken fragile world of human reality.
Time and time again we see Jesus “moved with compassion” (Matt 20: 34; Mark 1: 41), either for the multitude or for the individual who came to him: The leper, the blind man, the woman caught in adultery, the thief on the cross. They recognized him as one of themselves.
We are All God’s Children
The root of compassion is solidarity in the basic reality of our shared human experience. At the deepest level, what we hold in common is a vast reservoir of common thoughts, feelings and emotions. We are all so much alike – full of boundless hopes, dreams and promises – yet all the while hurt, wounded and scarred. The same current runs through the blood of all of us: fear and joy, laughter and sorrow, tears and smiles.
Compassion is concern with these feelings, not with ideas or insights. It means putting oneself in another person’s shoes, feeling the same feelings, sharing the same emotions. Compassion moves along the way of tenderness, yet it enters the whole world of human reality: fear, loneliness, rejection, despair, sometimes even the ultimate despair – despair of life itself.
Compassion takes what it finds – the raw brute reality of each human experience. It is not concerned with “problems” but with people, or rather with one unique human. Compassion does not seek to solve the problem even when it is obvious, or to argue when a situation seems irrational. It does not need to judge, give advice or offer direction. Compassion offers a shoulder to cry on or a hug of support and understanding. It is not afraid of silence, or of tears or of laughter. Rather, it is a quality of offering to another human being space and a safe boundary within which they can feel at home.
Prayer of the Heart
It is out of this sort of compassion that true prayer is born. If prayer is turning to God, it is about a turning toward others, identifying with them as we walk the road of life together. Real prayer has no boundaries of race, gender, economic status, language or creed. It sees only a brother or sister, someone with whom we share a mutual struggle and a mutual destiny. Across barriers we are all one, and in that oneness, we find the heart of God and the heart of all our fellow travelers. They are all there: those who seek the truth and those who are afraid of it, those who walk in the light and those who observe from afar, those who love and those who are unable to receive love.
This is the essence of the compassionate heart.
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But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (Psalm 86:15)
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph 4:32)
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. (1 Peter 3:8)
Patterns of Prayer by Eugene McCaffrey