I HAVE always been moved by that story from the Great War in which a war-weary Tommy, on his way up to the front line, spots a shell-blasted Calvary, or wayside crucifix of Jesus, and says, “Who was he, anyway? I bet I’ve suffered more than he ever did.”
This past year of pandemic has, of course, been rather different from wartime conditions, but I cannot be alone in feeling worn thin and exhausted. So many of us are traumatised.
Not least among the deleterious effects of pandemic, for me, is a kind of compassion fatigue. I have been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of death, the level of human need, and the limitations imposed on life. The lockdowns have pushed me inwards, leading me to focus, a little to my shame, on my own sense of suffering and distress. To cope, there have been days when I’ve sealed up my compassionate heart.
God calls us out of ourselves into compassionate service, however, and surely the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the very icon of divine compassion; for this is the God who demonstrates his abundant compassion by laying down his life for the sake of the world.
Herein lies one of the joys of Easter: that, in the midst of the torture and death of Good Friday, and the absence of God on Holy Saturday, Jesus Christ comes forth from the tomb to offer us the promise of reconciliation. In crucifixion, Jesus suffers death and trauma; in resurrection, he does not seek revenge for what we have done to him, but offers us friendship and renewed love.
AS MANY people know, at its root, “compassion” means “suffer with”. Through his suffering with and alongside us, Jesus invites us to grow into his likeness: to shape our lives according to the way of self-offering, giving, and compassion.
That is the theory, and it is an impressive one. What seems possible for God, however, is problematic for us. If God is infinite compassion, we humans clearly are not. I cannot be alone in feeling that this past year has found my compassion wanting.
If being compassionate is, in part, a matter of suffering with and alongside, too often I’ve found myself “switching off”. In this era of 24-hour rolling news and instant access to endless data, I have often felt overwhelmed. Just to stay sane, I have sometimes had to switch off access to the incessant groans of a world in need.
Critics of religion might take such a response as yet another token of the falseness of faith: if I, a “mature” Christian, have struggled to remain compassionate, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Perhaps the theologian and writer Henri Nouwen can help us to diagnose both the blockages to compassion and the routes back towards re-engaging with its demands.
Nouwen suggests that compassion is nothing more nor less than the “full immersion in the condition of being human”. Nouwen reminds us, then, that compassion takes us to the deepest and profoundest reality of our human embodiment. When we are compassionate, we are caught up in our fullest humanity.
If he is right, and I think he is, then compassion surely implies that to be human is all about relationship and connection; for without relationship I can’t see how it is possible to “suffer with” and alongside other humans.
WHEN we, as people, fail to be compassionate or good or loving, it has become something of a modern refrain to say, “Well, we’re only human.” Here’s the rub, though: that is precisely what we’re not.
We struggle to be human. Indeed, I have come to believe that there is a liberating beauty and challenge in acknowledging that there has only ever been one human being, Jesus Christ. The rest of us are approximations. We are sketches. If we were in a movie, we’d be the badly rendered CGI.
We are not human, yet. In so far as we are unable to be compassionate, it is not that we are being “all too human” but not yet human.
For me, part of the power of the Easter Triduum — as it takes us from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Day — is the permission that it gives us to come to terms with our failure to be compassionate, and how much we struggle, thereby, to be human.
Part of the power of the Passion narrative lies, then, in the way in which it holds the drama of life: it reveals how the most significant friendships and relationships can end up in the wreckage of betrayal, failure, denial, and cowardice.
The behaviour of Judas, Peter, and the rest earths the cosmic drama of redemption in recognisable failure. Our failures in friendship and love, which reflect our retreat from the call to compassion, find a place in God’s story.
The Passion reveals yet more. At its locus is the torture and execution of the Son of God. Perhaps torture and state-authorised execution are the very acme of the capacity of our species to suspend and limit compassion and empathy. Ethicists such as Jeremy Wisnewski and R. D. Emerick have suggested that, in torturing his victim, the perpetrator renders himself less than human.
In short, if the torturers immersed themselves in their full humanity, they could not do their job. In so far as we, on Good Friday, make Jesus our victim, we reiterate only our capacity to circumvent compassion. The Passion reveals us for what we are: the species that can suspend its capacity to “suffer with”.
THE death and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveal that bodies matter. The work of God’s love at Easter is undertaken through the body of Jesus Christ, and we are invited to become part of that body.
To become a Christian is always, ultimately, a bodily matter: that is why baptism is essential. Equally, it should not surprise us that the central sustaining liturgical act of the Christian faith, the eucharist, is profoundly bodily. To share in the feast of Christ involves feeding on Christ’s body and blood.
The fact that so many of us have struggled with being denied that feeding in the past year underlines just how embodied we are. In eucharist, God gives us a ritual to treat “compassion fatigue”; in feeding on Christ’s body and blood, we are restored and renewed. We are made ready to be sent out into the world for service as human beings.
I have long adored the fact that compassion in both Hebrew and Greek has a bodily significance. The Hebrew word for compassion is rachuwm, taken from the root word rechem, which means “womb”. When I became aware of the connection between womb and compassion, I felt I had encountered something of the structure of God’s first language. This is the God who feels for us in her womb. Equally, the ancient Greek for “guts” is splagchnizomai. One of its implications is “being moved to one’s bowels”, which itself means “moved to compassion”; for, in classical culture, the bowels were the seat of compassion and pity.
These etymological connections underline how in baptism, as we are born again in Christ, we encounter the compassion of God who feels for us in her womb. They underline how, in eucharist, we are sustained and renewed as we take God into our guts. To be members of the Body of Christ means that we are people of compassion — of gut and of womb.
THE life of compassion to which God invites us is a costly, embodied one. It is never simply an idea, or reducible to good intentions. It entails coming to terms with the violence and cruelty seemingly sealed into our species’ DNA, as well as being prepared to live in resistance to such violence.
The life of compassion entails daring to be caught up in this world without simply being crushed by it. The novelist Milan Kundera suggests that “there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
To live the life of compassion is a costly vocation. Jesus Christ shows us that. When I feel that such a vocation is too much for my frail flesh, I remember that Christ shows me otherwise. To become more compassionate is to become more human, and, therefore, more divine. In my own power, that is unfeasible; in Christ, however, nothing is impossible.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.