It is Christmas, 2012, and I sit in the sunlight of the early morning and welcome the day. For many years I have been alone on Christmas morning; my children, parents, sister and I celebrate Christmas on its eve. My children spend the day with her mother and later in the day, my parents, sister and I have dinner at my cousin’s home. As a result, the gift I receive Christmas morning is time. Time to sit and reflect, time to meditate, time to just be.
As a Catholic Christian of the Franciscan brand, and a student of Buddhism and the Tao, I spend much of my time thinking about the concept of compassion; what it means and how to let flow from me and perhaps by example, to others. I know in my imperfection, I fall short on many occasions, but I try.
Compassion, to me, is freely giving of myself to another with no expectation of return. True compassion is that which takes all those parts of us, such as love, humility, forgiveness, and binds us together through spiritual action. And therein lies the key; action.
Without action, compassion is nothing more a momentary pause; a hanging of the head, a tear, an ache in the heart. The momentary emotional pause, however, is only a first step. It is the pause which allows us to feel the need to act. Whether or not we act, is the next step, and where we many times fall short.
Sometimes, the first step of feeling compassion is overlooked, and we discount ourselves. No doubt in some discussion, Biblical or otherwise, you have found yourself in the debate regarding giving. If I have little and give much of what I have, is it better than having much, giving more, but having “no” feeling for what you have done, simply doing it because it is what is expected.
For example, in the Gospel of St. Mark 12:41, and again in the Gospel of St. Luke 21:1, Jesus Christ speaks of the widow who tithes only two coins, which is all she has and He compares her worthiness to those Pharisees and Scribes who give much more than her, but not enough so that it “hurts,” and in fact by their actions hurt others. Who is more worthy? The answer, of course, is the woman. And that seems to be where the debate turns. But as with all parables, there is much more, and sometimes much less than what readers attribute to it. I do not believe this parable is really about compassion. If it were, then despite the huge trusts Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have created for hundreds, if not thousands, of charities, would not be an act of compassion, but rather nothing more than two very wealthy roosters climbing to the top of their respective dung hills and crowing. They are not that.
We tend to think of life in a binary state; yes or no, on or off, right or wrong, compassionate or not compassionate, two sides of a coin. Life, however, is not binary. Life is a matter of degrees, shades, ebbs and flows. Any mathematician worth his salt will tell you there is infinite space between each side of the coin. Perfectly symbolized in the Ying Yang of the Tao, life is ever changing, one aspect flowing into the other and in fact, at times emerging within the other. Sometime, one aspect is stronger and another weaker, but always moving toward a very fluid equilibrium.
So back to our parable, how does it apply to compassion? Clearly, the woman who gives all she can would be considered the more compassionate, but does that preclude the Pharisees and Scribes from being compassionate? No, it does not. What I see here is a woman whose life is full of compassion, while the Pharisees and Scribes, well not so much. Their actions, however, are to a degree motivated by compassion, albeit a small degree. But from the tiny mustard seed, a mighty tree may grow. They are not without hope for a fuller compassionate life.
There are and will be issues and events which touch you somehow. If you receive an e-mail which asks you donate to help purchase mosquito netting to prevent malaria in Africa and you think to yourself, “hmmm…that sounds like a worthy cause.” and without much more thought, you send $10. Is that any less an act of compassion than devoting yourself to bi-monthly beach clean-ups to help preserve the environment? Or working in a clinic to aid the homeless with health issues? Or volunteering an occasional Saturday at the animal shelter? Again, of course not. Do not confuse passion with compassion, nor the degree of action with the absence or presence of compassion.
Now we have that spark of compassion within us. What do we do? A few years ago while my daughter was away at University, she telephoned me late one evening in near tears. “Daddy, there are so many things in the world that need to be done, what can I do?” My answer was simple, “Do what you can.
Pick one or two things, and devote your energy to them.” The world can be so overwhelming that most of the time all you can do is offer a moment of reflection or, as we of faith refer to it, prayer. And that is an act of compassion. Other times, there are things which not only stir our compassion, but fuel our passion and we can do something; something which is observable, something which may motivate others to also act, something that by its very nature changes our world for the good.
No doubt, like me, your thoughts have not been far from the events in Newtown, Connecticut. And like me, compassion has been stirred within you toward those whose lives were lost, and those whose lives will be forever shattered and changed. I know, however, the feeling without the action is incomplete.
I have chosen to avail myself to work for radical change with regard violence in America. And it willrequire a change in me. I will not meet anger and fear with anger when debating the issues surrounding stricter gun laws, or increased taxation to subsidize mental health availability. I will not resort, however tempting, to name-calling those with whom I disagree. I am even going to try and remove all metaphors which have violence as their image from my language, written and spoken. But this is an issue which I have decided I must address. It may not be for you.
It would hubris to believe I could tell you what you should do. It may be that you are not ready to take the leap to a path of compassion. Perhaps the fact you have reached this far in this missive is the planting of a seed. Compassion is not for the weak of heart, as I am reminded each day. I am merely a work in progress, and I am content with where I am, for now. It is after all a journey. I will, however,offer this gift to you for the coming year.
May the seed of compassion take root within you. For those of you with whom the seed has already taken root, may it find the nourishment to continue to grow. May your compassion grow into the fruit of action, and your action feed the needs of those who come to know you.
In Peace, and Namaste,