One of the expectations of Christian clergy and others is that they will be compassionate. Sometimes this amounts to no more than listening patiently and handing out tissues while someone pours out (or more often, chokes out) their grief and anger. But is that all compassion is? The Latin roots of the word go much deeper. To be compassionate we must suffer with the other, feel with them, not just identify with them intellectually. I wonder how many of us, clergy and religious, could honestly say that is what we do when confronted with the world’s pain? To keep our sanity, to enable us to go on, we sometimes have to place some emotional distance between ourselves and the other’s suffering.
Very often, awareness of having placed limits, of having perhaps lacked the imaginative capacity to sympathize as we think we ought, can lead to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I think myself they are misplaced. We are not called to be Christian supermen or superwomen; we are called to be Christ in any and every situation; and to be Christ is to allow Christ to work in and through us. He respects our limitations. After all, we are God’s creation! So, we do not need to worry about whether we are being truly compassionate or feeling the world’s pain as we ought. We have only to allow Christ to love others in and through us as best we can. Sometimes not getting too much in the way is more than enough.
If, today, you are called on to deal with a person or situation that seems beyond your strength or ability, take heart from the example of St Matthias. He was chosen to take the place of Judas, whose betrayal of Jesus had caused so much pain both to the Lord and to the disciples. Matthias knew he wasn’t first choice for the job, wasn’t even the surefire choice of the other apostles (who chose between between him and Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus). He had been with Jesus and the others from the beginning, but never in the first rank, never in the close circle we read about in the gospels. He could have had a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but he didn’t. His experience of being ‘outside’ stayed with him ‘inside’. I have a hunch that he was probably the most compassionate of the disciples because he knew not to get in the way. May he pray for us all.