Issue 106 / July - August 2015
A Symphony of Compassion
Anthony J. Ciorra
God calls us to make music in our world; to perform in a global symphony of compassion. If each human being lived by the law of compassion, what a wonderful world this would be! I can't help but think that this is God's plan for us.It is Fethullah Gulen who coined the phrase, "A Symphony of Compassion." Those who walk the path of compassion bring the music of divine energy into our everyday lives.
The Dalai Lama says it this way, "Compassion is the radicalness of our time." From his perspective, compassion is a radical action because it is an act of imitation of our God who is the All Compassionate One. It is a radical action because it challenges our culture that is so often filled with violence and hatred to embrace a better way, a way that nurtures peace and brotherhood rather than division and discord.
Mr. Gulen and the Dalai Lama are talking about the same thing using different sets of images. I would propose that there is no one image that can capture all that compassion means. Compassion is at the essence of all authentic religions and it is the goal of the human behavior of all those who call themselves religious. When we go to the dictionaries, we find that even there the radicalness of compassion is distinctive. The words "empathy and sympathy" (i.e., to enter into the experience of the other) are psychological words. These are qualities one would expect from a good therapist or a close friend. Compassion is much more than empathy or sympathy. Compassion belongs to divine; it is something that people nourished from the divine do.
The word "compassion" comes from two Latin words, "Cum" and "Patior," meaning to "suffer with." In other words, it is to actually share in the suffering of others; to walk with them into their pain. Frederick Buechner creatively captures the essence of compassion:
"Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you, too."
Buechner's words are a marvelous description of what is meant by unconditional love. Only God loves unconditionally; we imitate Him and try to love as best we can. As we grow more deeply into pure love, the more our love evolves into compassion, the highest form of love.
Karen Armstrong, the renowned scholar of religion, in her wonderful work, The History of God, wrote that it is in the mystical traditions where all of the major religions find common ground. The mystical path is one that leads us into the arms of a loving God who then commands us to bring this gift to others. The classic doctrine of the three ways offers a paradigm for the spiritual journey.
The Purgative way is the beginning of the journey. God calls us to abandon sin and tendencies towards evil. We then gradually grow into the Illuminative way. The word itself implies a movement out of the darkness into the beauty of the light. It is the path towards enlightenment that leads eventually to the Unitive way. The ultimate goal of the journey is reunion with God. The test of the authenticity of our relationship with God is the charity of our lives. Reunion with God that is real and true leads to solidarity with other people, especially the poor and the suffering through the gift of compassion. The three major Abrahamic religions, the "Religions of the Book," converge in their emphasis on the centrality of charity and compassion. Although we could include other religious traditions that would be in agreement, I will limit myself in this article to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In the Jewish tradition, God is called the "Father of Compassion." Thus "Rahamana," or the Compassionate, becomes the usual designation for His revealed word. Sorrow, pity, and the desire to help the other in their helplessness are qualities that are ascribed both to God and humans in the Torah. The Rabbis speak of the "thirteen attributes of compassion."
"The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding kindness and faithfulness" (Exodus 34: 60). The attribute of compassion will sometimes necessitate doing even more than the law requires. Compassion is a trait indigenous to the Jewish people:
"The children of our father Abraham...are merciful people who have mercy upon all" (Abadim 9:8).
"If someone is cruel and does not show mercy, there are sufficient grounds to doubt his image" (Babylonian Talmud, Betzah 32b).
Compassion as a manifestation of the "imitatio Dei" (The Imitation of God) is the goal of one's spiritual life in Judaism.
Asked for a summary of the Jewish religion "while standing on one leg" in the most concise terms, Hillel stated: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellows. That is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation: go and learn." (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a).
This, of course, is grounded in the great Schema of Israel: "Hear, O Israel, You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, and strength" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). This text is coupled with what we later read in Leviticus: "And love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:9-18). This is the message of the prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, always calling the people back to the covenant by hearing the cry of the poor through the ears of compassion.
The tradition of compassion in the Hebrew Scriptures deepened in the New Testament in the teachings of Jesus. Compassion is made concrete in the Christian dispensation in the traditional works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual. Corporal mercy includes feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked; housing the homeless; visiting the sick and imprisoned; ransoming captives; and burying the dead. Spiritual mercy involves instructing the ignorant; counseling the doubter; admonishing sinners; being patient; forgiving offenses willingly; comforting the afflicted; and praying for the living and the dead. The very nature of a religion that is based on the incarnation logically demands concrete actions and acts of charity in the world.
The New Testament emphasizes "Agape" as the highest form of love. The Greek word "Agape" implies love in the highest degree. In contrast to eros (emotional/sexual love) or philea (friendship), agape is the total giving of the self to the other in absolute freedom as pure gift. St. Paul in his letters often makes reference to this being the manner in which we describe God. He refers to God as the "Father of Compassion" and the "God of all Comfort":
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort." (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).
Jesus models the way in which we should do this by opening his arms on the cross as the sign of the fullness of compassionate love. He challenges us now to offer this same gift to others. He assures his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount that, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." In the Parable of the Good Samaritan he holds up to his followers the ideal of compassionate conduct. True Christian compassion should extend to all, even to the extent of loving one's enemies. The two Great Commandments of love of God and love of neighbor in the New Testament unite the two loves, i.e. by loving the other, we love God.
The revelation to the Prophet Muhammad brings the Judeo-Christian value of compassion into the heart of Islam. In the Muslim tradition, foremost among God's attributes are mercy and compassion, or in the canonical language of Arabic, "Rahman" and "Rahim." Each of the 114 chapters of the Qur'an, with one exception, begins with the verse, "In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful." A good Muslim is to commence each day, each prayer and each significant action by invoking God the Merciful and Compassionate One.
At the heart of Muslim belief is the principle of "tawhid" or oneness. This oneness, or unity, has been described as that which dominates the mind in Islam, while the heart is intrinsically linked to the concept of compassion:
"My Mercy encompasses all things" (Qur'an 7:156).
"My mercy takes precedence over my anger."
Islam sees the sentiments of love and compassion as expressions of the interconnected oneness of all human beings, reflecting the oneness and unity of God.
The Sufi mystics often come back to this core theme in the Qur'an. Jalal al-Din Rumi, born in modern day Afghanistan, in 1207 AD, is arguably the best known Sufi writer in the West. Rumi stipulates that while love is of the essence in Sufism, it is something that has to be experienced to be understood. "Love cannot be contained within our speaking or listening. Love is an ocean whose depths cannot be plumbed... Love cannot be found in erudition and science, books and pages... the kernel of Love is a mystery that cannot be divulged" (Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi).
Rumi, like the mystics in other traditions, internalizes and integrates the sacred teachings of his religious tradition. He powerfully articulates the spirit of the Qur'an that stresses that righteousness is not in precise observance of the rituals but in acts of compassion and kindness. It says that the litmus test for true belief and genuine worship is that should lead to compassionate living:
"It is not righteousness that you turn your faces to the East or the West, but truly righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the Prophets, and spends his money for love of Him, on the kindred and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and those who ask for charity, and for ransoming the captives; and who observes prayer and pays the alms; and those who fulfill their promise when they have made one, and the patient in poverty and afflictions and the steadfast in time of war; it is these who have proved truthful and it is these who are God-fearing. "(Qur'an 2:178)
Let us return now to the radicalness of compassion that brings the symphony of God's music into our world. I would suggest that in the twenty-first century, in a post 9/11 world, compassion is the anecdote to the violence and hatred that seems to permeate our world. Cardinal Walter Kasper recently wrote a book entitled Mercy. The book is a thorough analysis of the word "Compassion" and he equates it with the word "Mercy." He opines that mercy fuels the agenda and outcome of true compassion. He proposes that we need to create a culture of mercy. He says the challenge that we face is that, "Mercy is a difficult word for many today. Often those who know how to assert themselves and to get their way make a bigger impression than those who are merciful... therefore, as a first step, we have to expend some effort to disclose anew the original and thoroughly strong sense of this word" (p. 21).
We are blessed because God has sent two messengers of mercy into our world at this time when we need so desperately to rediscover the importance of mercy for the sake of peace and harmony in a world on the brink of destruction.
The first messenger is Jorge Mario Bergolio, now known as Pope Francis. He is already being acclaimed as the "Pope of Mercy." He has announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy to begin on December 8, 2015 and conclude on November 20, 2016. He is calling the whole Church throughout the world to embrace mercy and compassion as its mission. He challenges us in this way:
"We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. ... God comes to meet us through Mercy. It is the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness." (p. 1, Misericordiae Vultus)
The second messenger and champion of mercy and compassion is Fethullah Gulen. His spiritual and mystical texts are filled with teachings about mercy, love, and compassion. One of my favorites is where he uses examples from nature to describe the meaning of mercy and compassion.
"Now look at the bee that visits thousands of flowers and the silkworm that confines itself to its cocoon. How many hardships they endure to join in this symphony of compassion! How can we not acknowledge what these self-sacrificial creatures suffer in order to feed us honey and clothe us with silk? Have you considered what a hero of compassion the chicken is when she sacrifices herself to save her young from a fox? Or the wolf that offers the food she finds to her young, forgetting her own hunger?
"In nature everything bears witness to compassion and radiates compassion. The universe performed a symphony of compassion: Different voices and tunes merge in rhythm so perfectly that only an all-encompassing mercy could be directing this mysterious music" (A Fethullah Gulen Reader, pp. 87-88).
Pope Francis and Fethullah Gulen are living the radical message of compassion and bringing music into our world. They are showing us by word and example the way of creating a culture of mercy. May we follow their example and join the Symphony of Compassion!