I don’t know about you, but I’m always fascinated when people end their emails with a quotation from someone as well as signing their own name. Not a lot of people do this, at least not people who correspond with me, but the ones who do almost always leave me thinking. One thing I’ve noticed is that most people who do this tend to keep the same quotation for a long time. It’s not one thing this time and another thing the next time. As I contemplate what the saying means to me, I also wonder what led the sender to choose that particular quotation from that particular person. The one that has stuck with me most forcefully through the years and comes to mind now, given the season we’re in I suppose, is from Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Mother Theresa once said, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”
May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in. Year after year, we gather on this day to remember and meditate on the suffering of Christ. Once in a while some event like Mel Gibson’s movie a few years ago or a particularly graphic sermon may make us viscerally aware of the physicality of his suffering. But most years all that kind of stays at some remove, tucked safely away so that we can make it through the service. At least it does for me. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing because if we’re not careful, focusing on the physical suffering can hinder instead of help us to enter the deeper reality of what happened that day so very long ago.
Once, many years ago now, I was on my annual eight day retreat, and my spiritual director asked the quintessential Ignatian question…just as he did every year at the beginning of retreat. “What do you desire of God?” George asked. “I’m not sure,” I said. “Think about it,” he instructed. It was only after several days of settling into the routine of prayer and silence that I was able to say…very tentatively, “I think I desire the gift of compassion…but I’m not sure.” George roared with laughter as he said, “Well don’t ask for it if you don’t really want it because if you ask for something, God will give it to you!”
The word “compassion” comes from Latin. It’s a compound word, and the root “pati” means “to suffer.” The prefix “com” means “with.” The reason I wasn’t so sure I wanted the grace of compassion that year on retreat was that I wasn’t at all sure I wanted, much less could bear, to “suffer with” all the pain that exists in this world, or even with all the pain that exists in this parish right now, or the pain that inevitably exists among my friends and family. You see, it’s a whole lot easier simply to be understanding or sympathetic or, even better, to be helpful. All these responses to suffering, especially the last one, can be done while still maintaining some emotional distance. These responses can be both useful and appropriate, but they do not necessarily equate with compassion.
Compassion is a matter of the heart before it’s an act of the will. It’s a keen awareness, a holy awareness of suffering that is not our own, and a willingness to share that suffering in whatever way God leads us to. Sometimes the sharing does involve doing something, acting in specific and concrete ways to try and relieve the suffering. Other times it may not. But always it involves prayer. You and I are called to contain and offer before God those human beings and situations that God, in fact, brings to our consciousness in the first place. Using all the miracles of modern communication, God lays the whole world before you and me in ways that our ancestors would not only find amazing, but probably would also find overwhelming…just as we are sometimes overwhelmed by the news of the day.
There’s a well-documented and often-studied phenomenon at work in this world we live in where the farthest reaches of the planet are instantaneously available to us with the click of a button. Unless we go lock ourselves in a closet, our awareness is never free of the natural and human-generated disasters that plague our world…or the pleas for help that accompany reports of these events and situations. Even if we decide to stop looking at the television, the U.S. Postal Service regularly delivers appeals for aid to one cause or another. And what this can lead to, the social scientists and therapists tell us, is a condition called “compassion fatigue.” We begin to feel drained by the endless and seemingly insurmountable needs of people who are suffering almost beyond our imagining.
There is a long and sacred tradition of walking with our Lord through this week we call holy, and much of it focuses on sharing his suffering. We do this, as we did on the Sunday just past, reliving what must have been the heady experience of entering Jerusalem in triumph, yet knowing in the depths of his being that the unfolding events would not end well. We do this, as we did last night, when we gathered to remember his last earthly meal, a meal shared with those he loved dearly who would nevertheless desert and betray him within a matter of hours. We do this today, right now, as we recall his humiliation and torture and execution at the hands of his captors.
I am so touched by the words of Mother Theresa because I believe that what she describes in her prayer is what happened on the cross. It was God’s very heart that beat in that body hanging on the cross, and when the human vesture of the Divine heart ceased to beat, that dear heart broke so completely that the whole world fell in. If you and I desire to suffer with Christ, we must also desire to suffer with the world. If we desire to be truly compassionate we must be willing to allow God to break our hearts so completely that the whole world falls in.