Estimates are that 100,000 people gathered on St. Peter’s Square and countless others around the world heeded the cry of Pope Francis for a day of ‘prayer and fasting’ for Syria. Hearing about it on Friday, I passed the world along in the way I so often do, – posting it to Facebook.
Fasting? Why fasting? What good will fasting do?
Am I going to send the food to Syria?
Does God want me to fast?
Am I somehow going to change God’s mind about whether people should be killing there?
What is the point?
Am I supposed to feel guilty that I am enjoying this lovely meal while others are being displaced from their homes?
What is the point?
As I sat and contemplated these questions while eating my morning oatmeal… a thought occurred to me.
The point of fasting, the point of doing without, is not about sending the food to the ‘poor starving children’ and it is not about appeasing some angry deity who is a masochist and enjoys seeing me suffer.
The point, I realized, is to help connect me to the other.
The point of fasting is to, for a moment, displace me from the center of my world and my life, even if it is just around food – but, for those who know me, you know that is a central component of life!- but, for the moment, for the meal, for the day, I am given the opportunity to, in a small sense, allow my life to be joined with the one who is suffering.
No, it doesn’t make their suffering any less, no, it doesn’t somehow change God’s mind about me or them – but what it does do is to provide a link – a link of solidarity. But also a link to something larger than my own individual self, my own isolated self.
Which is, of course, what compassion is all about.
Compassion, according to wikipedia, is the understanding or empathy for the suffering of others, an emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates the desire to help.
Not exactly empathy, though related.
Not pity, but related.
Not exactly charity, though related.
Not exactly service, but related.
Steve has told us what the word compassion means in the Hebrew scriptures – it is related to the word womb. To feel deeply, as a mother feels from her womb. The scriptures speak of God’s womb trembling with compassion.
In the Christian scriptures the word that is used for compassion is splagchnizomai – Literally, to be moved to ones bowels, for the bowels were thought to be the center of ones feeling, the center of love and of pity. It is the word that gets used in the story of the Good Samaritan – when he sees the many lying in the ditch by the side of the road, he has compassion – he is moved to his very being.
It is the same word that gets used in the story of the Prodigal Son – a story of two brothers, an older and a younger. The younger decides that he has had enough of this two horse town and wants to take his share of the inheritance – basically saying to his father, you don’t matter to me, only your money does, so give me my share and I’m outta here – a less than respectful way to leave. He takes the money, goes to a far away land, squanders the money on loose living and winds up with the pigs – not exactly a great spot for a young Jewish boy.
One day it occurs to him – you know, I could go home and be a servant and I’d be living better than this. So he heads back. Not with any sense of remorse, necessarily. Not with a sense of ‘I have squandered what I have been given I need to go home and apologize.’ Nope. Just a sense of ‘I’m hungry and if I returned home at least I could eat.’
As the story goes, when the son is still a long way off the father sees him – has the father been watching for him all along? The father sees his wayward son and does something remarkable – he runs toward him.
This is remarkable for a number of reasons. One, it is a relinquishing of a man’s dignity, to run in such a way. It reminds me of the other day when I went to Paola’s for lunch and, upon hearing that they had chilis rellenos, reached my hands into the air and cried, ‘yes!’
But not only was the running a shedding of dignity – it was also a letting go. The boy had done his father wrong. The boy had not acted like a good son. The boy needed to apologize. The father deserved an apology. The son owed it to him.
But the father ran. He ran before he knew what the boy’s motives were for returning. Without asking for or demanding any sort of explanation of the past months or years, he embraced his son. And he threw a party.
Compassion. To be moved to ones bowels. Even to the point of running, of embracing, and of throwing a party.
The older brother, the one who had stayed home, taken care of the farm, done all the right things and behaved the right ways, was not as pleased.
“What are you doing, encouraging this delinquent by such behavior?!” he demanded of the father. “He has done wrong. He should pay. He needs to apologize at least. And then pay back all that he has squandered.”
To which the father responded, “This son of mine was lost – now he’s found – celebrate with me.”
The older brother couldn’t go there. He was too stuck on the way he thought things were supposed to be. I wonder, does that sound familiar?
As we all know, there is much talk these days about the ‘spiritual but not religious’ – and one of the main things that gets mentioned in this conversation is the idea of ‘belief.’ People don’t necessarily want to have to ‘believe a certain way’ in order to be on a spiritual path. Don’t tell me what to believe.
But did you know that this linking of belief with an intellectual assent is actually a fairly recent phenomenon?
Prior to the last few hundred years the word belief had almost nothing to do with ‘what I believe or don’t believe to be true about x.’ Rather, the word belief actually meant commitment. (see this post by Karen Armstrong for more info)
So, to say I believe meant not I acknowledge or assent to intellectually, but I commit myself to.
I believe in justice – I commit myself to justice.
I believe in caring for the environment – I commit myself to doing so.
Committing oneself to is a much different animal than agreeing intellectually, isn’t it? We can agree with things intellectually and yet never actually put them into action, can’t we?
But ‘I believe’ as in ‘I commit myself to’…well, that’s a much more demanding prospect.
Just over a week ago was the 50 year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, a speech whose ‘I have a dream’ is a call for ‘commit yourself to.’
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream. I believe. I commit myself to.
There have been many studies done recently about the physical effects of compassion.
Did you know that practicing compassion actually lengthens your life? That people who practice compassion are, across the board, happier and healthier? Sounds like an infomercial, doesn’t it? But before you rush to practice compassion for all of these benefits you should know one other piece of information – only when compassion is practiced selflessly, as in, without regard to personal benefit, does it actually produce these results.
But there is something else, and what I find to be the most interesting thing about compassion – practicing compassion actually reconfigures our brains.
Compassion, according to Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax, enhances neural integration. When we go through trauma, or even stress, especially as young children who experience abuse, terror or trauma, but even as adults who experience difficulties, and challenges the stressful or traumatic event actually causes blockages in our brains that, with repetition, are like damming up the flow of a river. Because of those blockages we are not able to think always as clearly or as well or as easily. For most of us we acclimate to the new situation and move on, not always even realizing the damage.
Compassion actually has the capacity to mend those broken places in us, remove those blockages, re-connect that which had been disconnected.
Re-integrate that which had been segregated.
When can often assume that compassion is for the benefit of the other – for the benefit of the one who receives our compassion. But the act of compassion actually heals us in the process as well. Compassion mends the broken places in us. Compassion re-integrates that which had been separated.
When we are moved to our bowels, splagchnizomai, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, we are welcoming back those parts of ourselves that have gone off wandering in a far country. It is that very practicing of compassion that brings healing to ourselves, but also healing to the world.
What is the failing of the older brother in the story? He fails to have compassion. He is so preoccupied with the rules, with his own preoccupation with following them to the t, that he misses the larger point – that the point is to have compassion. He is so concerned with following the rules that he misses the relationship.
Compassion re-integrates that which has been kept separate.
Which, of course, is the meaning of the word religion – to re-bind, to connect. To mend that which has been torn. To remind us, to invite us, into a world where father’s run with arms wide open, throwing dignity to the wind in their rush to lavish extravagant love. Not to demand that we punish ourselves, or wallow in our wretchedness. But to throw a party, no string attached.
To re-integrate that which has been separate. To help us see that separate is the illusion – connected is the reality. To repair the broken places.
There is a Buddhist story about Acharya Asanga who medidated in a cave for 12 years, hoping, in so doing, to have a vision of the Buddha Maitreya.
He exerted so much throughout those years but still he could not have a vision. He lost heart and came out of his meditation cave. He was walking towards town when all of a sudden, he came across a female dog totally infected by maggots on the lower part of her body. Asanga felt so much compassion towards the maggots and towards the female dog. He was wondering how to relieve both the maggots and the female dog.
Under such strong compassion, he reached out his tongue with the eyes closed. No matter how much closer he went, he could not touch the dog. Asanga opened his eyes and saw Lord Maitreya there in all His glory.
It was the cultivating of compassion, and then acting upon that compassion, that finally allowed him to see.
Compassion, thusly practiced, has the power not only to heal us, but to bring that healing to the world – what we have talked about as the Jewish concept of Tikun Olam, the repairing of the world.
What does compassion look like, when practiced by a community?
It looks like the common good. Not just my own personal private good – not just my own benefit, but the benefit of all.
Or, to put it in the words that Dr. King used to describe it, it looks like the beloved community. His vision was that of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice where brotherhood would be an actuality, not just a dream.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!