Message 110, Touching the Spirit, Compassion, 10-21-12
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After visiting Calcutta, India in the 1940’s, Mother Teresa says she felt an inner call to create and found her famous order of nuns – the Sisters of Charity – to minister to the poorest of the poor. On that trip she witnessed horrors of unspeakable poverty – thousands of people living with little hope in filth and squalor. Even worse, she saw how so many of the poor and sick suffered and died not only in their extreme poverty but also alone, unloved, unwanted and afraid.
From her deep sense of compassion, from that inner call of her spirit, Mother Teresa dedicated her life to showing love and compassion to the poor and sick. In 1952, she founded one of the first homes for the dying in the world. While she was not immune from legitimate criticism for not providing professional medical care to patients and for allowing them to feel pain as a way to experience the sufferings of Jesus, Teresa and her fellow sisters nevertheless loved the unloved, touched the untouchables and gave dignity to the abandoned and unwanted. From all accounts, she exuded a form of compassion that could only come from an inner core – from her spirit. She acted as an angel of mercy in the depths of many hells.
Much like Mother Teresa, it is said in the Bible that when Jesus saw a large crowd of people who had been rapturously following him late into the night, he was moved with compassion for them. He directed his disciples to feed and serve them. As we also know, Jesus was moved by compassion for many people – for a woman with a bleeding disorder, for a blind man shunned by society for allegedly being a sinner, and for a group of lepers who were also scorned for their disease. The Bible specifically mentions that Jesus was MOVED in his compassion. Something deep within him stirred. He not only felt great compassion and sorrow for those who suffered, he then tangibly rendered assistance to them.
When we see someone who is sick, dying, in fear, hurting or suffering, we also often feel a sense of compassion. That sense hopefully comes from our inner souls, from the part of us that we cannot fully explain or understand. Our spirits have been touched and we feel great empathy and sorrow not as a result of thought or reason but because of something unknown, mysterious and universally good within us.
Indeed, that is the central point of our October message series – to understand and learn from ways in which our spirits are touched. Whether or not we believe in a supernatural god force, most of us nevertheless acknowledge that there are forces acting in the universe that are beyond rational or scientific explanation. Such forces might be called divine as they are so powerful, so large, and so mysterious as to humble us in our flawed and limited humanity.
As we discussed last Sunday, our spirits are touched by perceptions of good and bad. In ways that our minds cannot fully process, we are stirred to courageous acts if our spirits are allowed to override our minds that can lead us to timidity and a “go along with the crowd” form of fear. Every day and all around, we witness great acts of courage that defy normal behavior – acts that are motivated by an inner reservoir of universal values.
Today, we’ll ponder ways in which our spirits are touched by feelings of compassion. To experience genuine compassion, our spirits must defy our brains which are too prone to judgment, rationalization and intolerance. How many times do we fail to act with compassion because our minds have shut down our compassionate spirits – telling us that someone deserves their suffering, helped cause it or is somehow not worthy of our care?
While our brains are glorious instruments of evolution and creation, they can dominate our thinking and thus our actions. But, as we clearly know, our thinking is NOT infallible. Our minds are prone to irrational cognition influenced by experience, prejudice, fear, doubt and even indifference.
Instead, our call in this message series is to heed our spirits, to know them and allow them to act in balance with our minds. Our spirits are capable of knowing without knowledge and seeing without sight. Feelings of compassion derive from this mystery place. We are moved in ways we do not understand and, when balanced with what our minds tell us, we can act compassionately in ways that are not overly sentimental but, instead, genuinely empathetic.
Charlie Chaplin once noted that, “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.” And, perfectly articulating how our spirits should inform our minds and thus our actions, Dean Koontz, the famous contemporary novelist, notes, “Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion and empathy.”
What we discover is that humans were wonderfully created as compassionate beings. That spirit essence of us feels the pains of this world. Compassion is what defines us as human and gives us the unique spark that provides lasting meaning and purpose to our lives. It is a gift that enables us to fully live in the midst of a suffering world. Because of it, we help build heaven on Earth.
The Jewish and Christian Old Testament defines god as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” The ancient Hebrew word for compassion is “rahm” which comes from their word “rachamim” which means “womb of god.” Such a womb is the very center of our existence – the inner place in us from which all good things come. Compassion, for Jews and for us, begins inside – from our spirit center.
And, as a religion originating from the same source as Judaism and Christianity, Islam perceives Allah or god in the same way. At the beginning of every chapter in the Quran, are the words “In the name of Allah, who is compassionate and merciful.” Such is the most spoken verse in Islam and it is repeated at every prayer. The god force is known to almost all world religions as one of love. And so it is with humans. We each have that god-force in us. It is our spirit and its very essence is genuine compassion.
In order to show care and love to others, however, almost all great prophets and thinkers assert that we must first feel compassion for ourselves. Irrational parts of our minds must shut down and our spirits allowed to love the self. Buddhism is strong on this point. Only by being gentle with the self can we thereby enable our spirits to blossom outward to express compassion for others. Matthew Fox, the mystic Episcopal priest, asserts that we cannot be compassionate to others unless we first know how to be compassionate to ourselves.
This gets to the essence of touching our compassionate spirits. Our rational minds must not be allowed to prevail in determining our emotions, thinking and actions. Thoughts of shame and guilt can dominate our self-talk and thus silence any sense of love for the self. Our irrational minds can tell us that we are not worthy of love, we are not deserving of compassion, or that we have fallen short in life due to our mistakes. By engaging in such destructive self-talk, we can feel less compassion toward ourselves and thus unable to act with compassion to others. The homeless person we encounter does not deserve our attention, we can tell ourselves, since he or she might be a drunk or lazy. The AIDS victim engaged in destructive behavior and deserves his or her illness. The addict or person in poverty suffers as a result of poor decisions, etc. We must stop the blame game and listen to what our inner spirit knows is good and right.
If we tap into our inner spirit, however, and allow it to expand throughout our hearts and minds, we will see ourselves as we were created to be – beautiful, wondrous and unique beings capable of great love, courage and wonder. Indeed, our essential selves were created to be compassionate as I related earlier. In us is the supernatural force that yearns to love and be loved. We must allow that spirit in us to flower; we must touch our spirit in a way that truly feels how beautiful we REALLY are.
Christian mystic and writer Sue Monk Kidd says that when we find our “Authentic I” – the genuine self that honestly perceives our inner beauty despite the warts, we will be well on our way to unleashing a truly compassionate spirit. We must employ our emotional intelligence to sense all the ways we are unique, the good and the bad qualities that define us. We must be gentle with ourselves and not negatively judge who we are. All of our imperfections do not define us. Our beauty and our compassion define us. If we honestly accept that, then we can move toward healing and away from feeling guilt or shame for our flaws.
That enables us to move from the “Authentic I” to seeing the world as a “Collective We”. I am a beautiful person and so are you – so is everyone else. My pains are worthy of your compassion no matter my flaws, and so are yours. Your suffering is my suffering. We do not judge ourselves or others as undeserving of love. This was how Mother Teresa saw the poorest of the poor. She said that when she looked into their faces, she saw not a ravaged, filthy or sinful person but the image of Jesus. She saw their innate beauty and their inner souls of goodness. She lived out the idea of believing in the “Collective We”.
While true compassion begins within our inner spirits, we should guard ourselves from “spirit-less” or false compassion.
Caring actions can masquerade as compassion when in reality they derive from arrogance, insecurity or a desire to be liked. We can do caring acts to win another’s favor, to assert ourselves as somehow superior or to make ourselves feel worthy. This form of caring does not originate in the spirit. It is of the irrational mind that seeks recognition for the self. It lacks true empathy for the hurting.
Caring thoughts can also masquerade as compassion when in reality they are dispassionate and disconnected. Care is offered in a way that is simply going through the motions. If we do not feel in the core of our souls the pain of the other, we are not really compassionate.
“Spirit-less” compassion is also identified by speaking caring words but failing to actually act with care. Too often people express compassion without acting to show it. It is one thing to talk about love, it is quite another to practice it. Words must be backed up by deeds. Every time Jesus was moved by his compassionate spirit, he acted, he healed, he challenged, he gave, he fed, and he touched. Those who piously speak of feeling sorrow for others but do nothing to help, they have not touched their spirits.
Finally, our compassionate spirits are not totally untied from our minds. Real compassion is not mere sentimentality that is devoid of intuition and thought. We know, for instance, it is not compassionate to offer money to a needy alcoholic who will likely use it to feed his or her addiction. We know tough love is still love because it encourages a person to find their strength and not their weakness. Jesus showed his compassion to the woman caught in adultery not by judging her but by embracing her, loving her and calling her to a life of respect for herself and her body. Indeed, a frequent form of his compassion was to encourage others to find their “Authentic I” – to rigorously examine their hearts and pursue things and actions that make them feel whole, joyous, caring and meaningful. Booze, drugs, hate and greed diminish the inner spirit – masking the inner beauty that is really inside a person. Come alive – Jesus called to so-called sinners. Come, give, serve, love and find a purpose in life that matters to others, he implored. Love yourself as a way to then go out and love others.
Recently, a professor at a nursing school added a tenth question to one of his exams. It asked students to write the first name of the woman who cleans their classroom – someone they saw every day. Many students complained and asked if the question really counted. It did and it made the difference between an A or a B, or even worse. Nobody could answer it and yet, within a few days, everyone knew the woman’s name. The professor told his students that they should always be aware of and empathetic towards others – especially in a profession like nursing. As William Wordsworth, the great English poet, once noted “The best portion of a good person’s life (is) his or her little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”
What we learn about ourselves is that as much as we might think we are compassionate, too often it does not originate from our spirit centers. It is too ego driven, calculating, overly sentimental or dispassionate. When our inner soul weeps or is deeply touched by the suffering of another, we will know it. But then we must allow that feeling to flower and not be silenced. Too often, our minds talk too much and we do not hear our spirit. If we listen with the heart, however, we’ll hear the cry of another. We can then act in a way that is truly compassionate – to help, to encourage, to support, or to show tough love – never to judge or demean.
Some of us hold back our compassionate selves – guarded by self interest, busy lives, fear or judgmental attitudes. As a faith community, not all of us are doing the work of compassion that defines who we really are. Yes, we all have busy lives and we are often compassionate in our personal lives, but our purpose individually and our purpose as a church is to show compassion to each other and to the world. Only when we touch our inner spirits can we live and act authentically – loving ourselves and others in ways that are meaningful and make a difference. Only when each member of this church or any church acts in such a way will we be true to our spiritual calling and reason for existence.
When we are each on our deathbeds, might we measure our success in life by knowing we impacted at least one other life with real compassion? Might we each genuinely examine our hearts in the meantime to find the source of our compassionate actions – to find that place that intuitively knows mercy is always greater than indifference? That forgiveness is greater than anger? That love covers a multitude of imperfections in how we live and act?
As we were born to be compassionate people in all the ways that I have discussed today, let it be said for each of us that we lived true to that fact. We will not have been truly human unless it can be said we touched our spirits and found our compassionate selves.
I wish us all peace and joy…