As with generosity, there are some people who are naturally compassionate. They have a gift for reading the emotional atmosphere of a person or situation. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, these are people for whom “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26). These folks can be the heart and soul of a community, pushing all of us to pay attention, to expand our vision to include those who are on the periphery of our lives.
Yet just has generosity is a value that can be learned, so also can compassion. Most religious traditions give high value to compassion, that ability to notice and accompany others, that ability to pull your head from the sand of modern life and see what is happening around you. Most religious traditions also have techniques and advice in how to grow in compassion.
For Christianity, much of the focus has been around service to those in need. The Lutheran tradition has a long history of organizing to help people locally and around the world. Check out the work of the Lutheran World Hunger Appeal, Lutheran Disaster Relief or, in New England, Ascentria Care Alliance (formerly Lutheran Social Services). This is not to mention the work of local congregations in feeding, sheltering and advocating for people in need around them.
Such service is the product of compassion. However, sometimes we are tempted to skip the compassion and move straight to the service. We know the sorts of thing that the church ought to be doing. We develop a social outreach committee and turn it into a program of doing good deeds. However, there is a marked difference between working out of a space of obligation or expectation, doing things because we should do them, and working from a place of compassion, doing things because we can’t help but do them.
I would argue that the church’s job is shifting. At one point in history, religious organizations were the primary means of social services in many communities. The church had the food bank. The church had an emergency fund. Today, many of these functions are done more effectively by social service agencies and organizations, some religious and some not. Perhaps the church’s job is not so much to provide these services but to cultivate compassionate people who might be moved to aid and volunteer for such agencies and organizations. Is our goal to develop a Christ Lutheran Church food bank or is it to develop compassionate people who will support and volunteer at our local service center, a group that has already done the groundwork and organization to feed other people?
One tool for developing compassion is along the lines of the daily examen meditation in the tradition of Saint Ignatius. At the end of the day you take a few of minutes in stillness to replay the events of that day. As you go through them, consider those moments that were opportunities for compassion. What happened? How did it feel? How do you think the other person was feeling? The purpose of this exercise is not to label these moments as good or bad, but to consider how they were handled and how they might be handled differently. The hope is that through reflecting each day through the eyes of compassion, we might prepare ourselves to be more compassionate in days to come.
Another important means for growing in compassion that is common among many contemplative Christians is meditation on the passion and the cross. In our culture we often want to skip the pain of the cross and embrace the joy of resurrection. Yet there is great power in considering what Jesus experienced as he suffered not only pain but also betrayal, abandonment and mockery. Through the story, Jesus offers himself as an icon for compassionate thought.
Most importantly, through the story of Jesus, we are set free to be compassionate. We are set free to step away from self-centeredness and into compassion for others. We are also set free to be less than perfect, knowing that through Christ’s compassion our incomplete compassion does not disqualify us from the love of God. Compassion is a gift that can change the world and a virtue in which Christians are called to grow.