During this period, where we are unable to meet together in church, Fr Ray Hemingray has shared his thought for today, Sunday Sunday 28th June 2020.
‘Compassion’ is a word not often heard in everyday speech, but it is a trait that is regularly admired in others. For example, throughout the Coronavirus lockdown, we have seen in the news many examples of dedicated NHS doctors and nurses and nursing home staff putting the welfare and needs of their patients and long-term residents before their own. But how do we define compassion? Is it just about being kind to others, or is it something far more than that?
My Chambers Dictionary defines compassion as ‘a feeling of sorrow or pity for the suffering of another, usually with a desire to alleviate it.’
Jean Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian, who died in May 2019, aged 91, founded the l’Arche community at Trosly-Breuil in France in 1964 for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. There are now l’Arche communities in 37 countries throughout the world. The French word ‘arche’ means ‘arch’ in architecture, but otherwise ‘ark’, as in l’Arche de Noé – Noah’s Ark. This is what Jean Vanier said about compassion:
“I may not be able to relieve your pain, but by understanding it and sharing it I make it possible for you to bear it in a way that enhances your dignity and helps you to grow.”
Now I have to come clean about Jean Vanier. Although he won many international awards for his work for people with learning disabilities, in February 2020 (nearly a year after his death) an internal report by l’Arche concluded that Vanier sexually abused six women in Trosly-Breuil, France, between 1970 and 2005. Terrible as that may be, I don’t think that it takes anything away from the words I have quoted above, as a guide to what we understand by compassion. Compassion is about empathising with someone who is suffering, and doing what we can to help.
I am reminded of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, in which a lawyer, in order to test Jesus, asked: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus replied: “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Jesus then told the lawyer the parable about a Gentile (a foreigner), who stopped to help a man who had been beaten up and left for dead by robbers, after a priest and a Levite had ignored the injured man. At the end of the story , Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
In the parable, Jesus uses the word ‘mercy’, which often implies ‘forgiveness’, but in this context it means ‘kindness’, ‘love’, ‘compassion’, ‘help’, ‘saving’, ‘sharing suffering’. And this, of course, is what is currently happening daily up and down the country in hospital coronavirus wards, where doctors and nurses put themselves at risk to help those suffering from the virus, regardless of race, colour, creed or background.
Due to current restrictions, we can’t all give practical support to people in hospitals and nursing homes suffering from the virus. But perhaps we could take time to ask ourselves what we can do to help others less fortunate than ourselves. Recently, Captain Tom Moore was a shining example to us all when, just before his 100th birthday, he did a walk around his garden which raised over £30m for NHS Charities Together. More recently, Tony Hudgell, a five-year-old boy who had to have both legs amputated and replaced with artificial limbs, did a sponsored walk on his crutches and has raised more than £1m for the hospital that saved his life. And there have been others who have raised large sums to help others. I am sure that, if we put our minds to it, we could all do something (dare I suggest, immediately!) to help somebody somewhere, who is in need, even if it is only to send a decent donation to one of our favourite charities.
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says: “Each one should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not out of regret or compulsion. For God loves a cheerful giver.”
I have a friend, now in his seventies, who once told me that, when he was a young choirboy, he nearly got himself thrown out of his church choir. One day, during what seemed like an interminable sermon, he reached out for a wooden alms dish lying nearby, which had carved on it the words ‘The Lord loves a Giver.’ Being bored, he took out his penknife and changed the inscription as best he could to: ‘The Lord loves a Fiver’! He told me that he thinks the only reason why the Vicar did not throw him out of the choir was because he had a very good singing voice.
I will sign off my reflection on compassion with a highly topical quotation from the French philosopher, author, and journalist Albert Camus, from his novel ‘The Plague’: “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.” How very true. And we all need to think about how we can help them, and those caring for them.
So don’t forget: ‘The Lord loves a Fiver’!
God bless you all.