From Friendship As Sacrament
The compassion of others is but another way through which we come to more deeply know and experience the love of God. When we experience an enticement to go out of ourselves, to risk ourselves, and to become one with another human being, compassion happens.
Jesus was the enfleshment of the father’s compassion. The incarnation was deeply personal in that it ushered God’s compassion onto the human scene in a whole new way. God, the Father’s compassion became flesh in Jesus, and so now it must become flesh in us. Our basic mission as God’s people is to articulate the nature and extent of God’s compassion which is freely given to us. If we receive it with open arms it will enrich us to such a degree that we, too, can express the same compassion: “He comforts us in all our afflictions and thus enables us to comfort those who are in trouble, with the same consolation we have received from him.” (2 Corinthians 1:4)
We can be compassionate only when we have come to terms with our own needs, weaknesses, and dependence. We are broken people and our brokenness is basic to our identity. It says that we are incomplete, “not yet,” in need of and dependent upon God.
Most often compassion gives us a sense of a common experience of broken existence. This feeling of shared brokenness is profound, but is not uncommon to the compassionate heart. In compassion we bear the pain of others; their failures, their hurts, their weariness, their fears become our own. This is why compassion is not a romantic idea; it is a touch, real act of loving. Jesus insists that compassion is much more than sentiment. For example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus defines compassion in specific, real, concrete terms: binding up wounds, pouring in oils, assuming the burden of another.
In compassion, which we forget ourselves and become one with another, we also come to recognize the unity of all people. In our compassionate response we say to another that, though we are unique as persons, at the center we are one with all people because we share a common, unifying source.
Christ is at the center of any relationship formed in compassionate love. Where there is lived compassion in a relationship, we sense God’s saving grace. The expression of compassionate love says to its recipient that life is about loving and that all of life moves toward the all-loving God.
Those whom we love become a part of us. That is why when someone whom we love is in a painful situation, we hurt too. It is as though through some mysterious intimacy, they are grafted onto us. Consequently, when someone we love dies, a part of us dies too. There is an emptiness, a holy void. That part of us will never be filled again, but that’s okay. The void remains as a sign of our humanness and our willingness to allow someone into the innermost part of us. It is a sign of our compassion.
Jesus’s charge to us is clear: “Be compassionate as your father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) The thrust of Jesus’s life was to be compassionate as his father was. The tough truth is that Jesus’s compassion led him to the cross. Jesus’s death on the cross was the ultimate expression of compassion. Jesus was so willing to identify with the brokenness of his people that he made himself broken. As his followers with extravagant compassion, we too must become broken. However, the power of brokenness that is formed out of a compassionate response to another’s pain, can be overwhelming. It says that we are never alone; that God sends special messengers to journey with us, ministers of his compassion, to heal our wounds and mend our brokenness. It says that there is something holy about people, about life, and about relationships.
The mutual, awesome recognition of a common personal experience often leads to an empathetic response. Passion becomes com-passion when the one who reaches out to us when we are in pain knows our pain and actually feels it with us.
The human heart is deeply affected by tenderness. Therefore God also uses the tenderness of another as a vehicle to reach us with his grace. When we experience this, we catch a special glimpse of the very heart of God, a heart that is full of tenderness and compassion.
To love tenderly is to be reverent. Reverence is a kind of holy respect combined with love and awe. We all deserve reverent treatment because in every person there is more than meets the eye. There is an infinite and inexpressible realm that is part of being one made in God’s image. Basically, people are precious because they belong to God. Think of all the reverence we lavish on “things” belonging to God – holy objects, a Bible, a church – and rightly so. Sometimes we forget that people belong to God; they are holy by virtue of the fact that they were created by God in his own image and are animated by him. If we recognize one another’s true identity as persons made in God’s image, as holy ones of God, we cannot help but respond with reverence.
We are capable of reverent love because the love that resides in us is that love of the Trinity, three persons abiding in the depths of intimacy. It is the epitome of reverent love. We can love the way God loves: tenderly. Because God loves us, he draws us to himself, close to his heart. The first letter of Peter calls us to the same kind of reverence: “By obedience to the truth you have purified yourselves for a genuine love of your brothers; therefore, love one another constantly from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22)
For us to encounter God in another and for another to encounter God in us, a disposition of reverence is essential. Love cannot survive without reverence; it is the fertile soil where love grows and flourishes. I have been graced with persons in my life whose general reverence for life was so obvious, so real, and so powerful that it affected me profoundly. With some people, their whole being speaks of reverence. There is a sense of reverence in all that they do. They seem even to be reverent when they ask you how you are or when they hold a baby in their arms. There is reverence in their kiss and in their words. These people have confirmed for me that there is something more to a person than flesh and bone; there is a heart and soul inexorably bound to the God of love. Their tenderness goes far beyond any human doings; it is grounded in a God who is the source of all tenderness and compassion.
The experience of the reverent love of another can create in us an inner compulsion to grow. This is especially true in marital love, but not limited to it. Reverent love allows the other the time and the space to be all that God intended. Reverent lovers invite us to see ourselves as valuable persons, loved by God. People tend to change in the continued presence of reverent persons. It happened to Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Zacchaeus. Jesus’s tenderness combined patience, firmness, acceptance, and deep, abiding love to heal and transform them.
In reverence we are sensitive to the inner vulnerability of the other; we acknowledge that we are fragile, delicate and precious persons. In reverence we never possess another, because reverent love is freeing love. We never violate another’s personhood by probing too deeply with questions. Sometimes reverent love falls silent in respect of another’s need for quiet. Reverent lovers can always bear the silence in their relationship, finding a special comfort in wordless wonder.
The reverent lover recognizes the uniqueness of personhood, and through that recognition is awed at the magnificent beauty of God’s people, made in his own image. When two reverent lovers meet, there is a recognition of a common life experience that issues from the one life-giving God. When they share intense moments together, there is a sense of reverence for all of life. In mutual reverence we cradle all of God’s creations and creatures tenderly between us. Persons of reverence open up to us a world charged with gentle beauty. Through their eyes we can see a new calmness in a beach bathed in moonlight, or experience a renewed sense of awe before the reality of a God who nourishes us with his body and blood.
Reverent lovers make us feel loved in a special way. Their love is nurturing love. An offer of love that is tender and respectful of who we are says that we are special and loveable. In the face of that loving statement, and relying on its constancy, we can grow and become more fully the persons God intends us to be.