Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, tells of an experience he had while riding the New York City subway one Sunday morning. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to Covey and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. And yet, the man did nothing.
Covey couldn’t believe that the man could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it. So finally, he turned to the man and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little bit more?”
The man lifted his gaze as if coming to consciousness and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Can you imagine what Covey felt at that moment? Suddenly, he saw things differently, and because he saw things differently, he thought differently, he felt differently, he behaved differently. His irritation vanished. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. Everything changed when he saw the man and his children from a different perspective and was able to be compassionate.
But what is compassion as a spiritual practice?
Jim Wallis writes in his book “Who Speaks for God”...
"Compassion has less to do with 'doing charity' than 'making connections.' The word compassion means literally 'to suffer with.' It means to put yourself in somebody else's shoes, try to understand their experience, or see the world through their eyes. That always changes our perspective. True compassion has less to do with sympathy than it does with empathy.
The call to compassion is not about somebody 'doing for' somebody else. Rather, its value is in the connection, the relationship, and the transaction in which everyone is changed.
The Hebrew prophets say that we find our own good in seeking the common good. The prophet Isaiah says that when we feed the hungry, take in the homeless, and 'break the yoke' of oppression, then we find our own healing. He also says the act of compassion requires that you 'not hide yourself from your own flesh.' In other words, compassion means to recognize the kindred spirit we all share together. And the Bible insists that the best test of a nation's righteousness is how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst."
Marcus Borg writes in The God we Never Knew: Some people find the experience and practice of compassion as a spiritual discipline to be a more direct route to the transformation of the heart than prayer. It is not that prayer does not or should not play a role in their lives, but their way to the opening of the heart lies through deeds of compassion. "Just do it" summarizes this path of transformation.
And Joanna Macy is quoted in Open Mind Diane Mariechild... Compassion literally means to feel with, to suffer with. Everyone is capable of compassion, and yet everyone tends to avoid it because it's uncomfortable. And the avoidance produces psychic numbing — resistance to experiencing our pain for the world and other beings.
But Karen Armstrong a religious historian and student of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism; states that the purpose of all the world religions is to change people’s behaviour. And each religion calls its followers to act compassionately as it brings followers closer to God.
Jesus certainly called us to live compassionately:
Luke 6: 31 – Do to others as you would have them do to you
John 13: 35 – By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Matt 22: 37-39 – Love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all you mind. This is the greatest and first commandment, and the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Jesus not only asked his followers to be compassionate but he himself lived compassionately with everyone he encountered.
In today’s Gospel from Mark – we know that Jesus and the disciples were tired enough that they themselves were not even able to get much to eat and so they try to get away from the crowds for a short time, we imagine to rest and restore themselves before continuing on their mission and ministry. But what we see happen is that Jesus saw the people – saw their need, had compassion for them and responded to their need.
Remember what Jim Wallis said about compassion in an earlier quote...it means to put yourself in someone else’s shoes... compassion is not about somebody 'doing for' somebody else. Rather, its value is in the connection, the relationship, and the transaction in which everyone is changed.
Add to that what we have learned from the Hebrew prophets about how we find our own good by doing good for others... when we feed the hungry, help the homeless, and 'break the yoke' of oppression, then we find our own healing.
Compassion allows us to recognize the kindred spirit we all share together.
Karen Armstrong suggests that when we feel compassion we dethrone ourselves and put someone else there, we get ego out of the way and let someone else claim centre stage.
But as a spiritual practice how do we practice it? How is it that we are able to practice being compassionate? I think the key is in our gospel reading.
You see when Jesus looked at the people; I think he must have identified with what he saw in those who had gathered or he allowed himself to feel their pain and loss. The passage said that they were like sheep without a shepherd, perhaps this was something Jesus had known in his life, for it is through our struggles and hard ships of life that we are able to have empathy and compassion and reserve judgement for God. Or maybe Jesus was able to see the look in the eyes of his followers and remember a pain that he had felt in his life and then he could identify with and feel for those who needed him.
I believe the only way to practice compassion is to be around those in need, and I mean really see the people or person there in front of you who is in need of compassion.
The challenge for us this week is to continue to work on celebrating each day, to be present in our daily lives and experiences, and now to offer compassion.
WE can do that by simply watching the news and let the sadness of the day’s events touch our hearts, walk down town and see the kids who live on the streets and let their stories touch your heart, see the prostitutes on St. George and let their stories touch your hearts. There are many places in our city and in our world where compassion is needed to be exercised. Not just within your hearts but at the next level - the level that calls us to action as well.
This week I know the spiritual practice of compassion is harder than the other two. It demands a little more from you. But it is an important part of our Christian faith. For the world will know that you and I are Christian by our love, not our judgements, pronouncements, or doctrines but by our love!!