The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another. – Thomas Merton
I went to college at the University of California, otherwise known as, Berkeley. When I was there, the school year was divided into three: three ten-week trimesters. This meant that not too many days after the course began, work on the mid-term paper and research for the mid-term exam also began.
I was an English major. A ten-week term meant, essentially, that for each English course that I was taking I had to read a book, or the equivalent, from that course every week. That’s one book by Dickens, another by Faulkner, some Milton, and a hacked off piece from James’s Ulysses.
In addition to the course work. And working full time.
What happened was that I went from being a somewhat self-indulgent reader to a hardened, precision reader. I learned to read not a word at a time, not a sentence at a time, but a paragraph at a time.
So I found it incredibly challenging when, in preparing for this essay, I read through data from experiments that tested the relationship between compassion, in the forms of acts such as intercessory prayer and loving attention, and healing.
I had to read every word, one by one, in order to follow along. The material was assembled by a doctor who wanted to make a very real point. Real or not, it was tedious reading.
What I learned was that compassionate, caring prayer for another person who knows the one who is praying (but not that a prayer was being offered) had a scientifically proven affect on parts of the brain of the prayee, as it were.
In another study, randomly assigned intercessory prayer for a stranger made absolutely no observable effect. This study was made by Harvard University.
Were I to take this study to heart, I would feel discouraged about all the hours that I’ve dedicated to praying for victims unknown to me, like the people of Japan or Haiti.
So, I’m not taking Harvard’s word on the matter.
I went to Berkeley, after all.
I also learned that crying as a result of feeling empathy actually can cause healing for the one who is crying. It can relieve pain and other very real symptoms.
But there’s a reason that I am not a scientist: I find facts much too limiting to understanding life. They come down too hard, have too defined edges, and deliver meaningless challenges. And they don’t play nice when challenged back.
And they don’t, in the end, as far as I am concerned, tell us much of anything.
When I was five-years old I was confined to an oxygen tent in a hospital. I was being treated for pneumonia. It was a very serious case, and family and friends were very concerned. At the hospital, there were nurses who would come by my bed and massage me. They would also sit and talk with me.
This contrasted starkly with my mother’s and grandmother’s stiff-backed visits, they being uncomfortably confronted with the tent, my labored breathing, and the environment. They talked with the experts around me and with each other. But with me it was mostly silence.
My family is British.
One day, in the general area where I lived there was a major catastrophe. I can’t remember now what it was, but it required the very full attention of the staff at the hospital.
No nurse came to massage me at all that day. No nurse came and sat by my bed just to chat as though I had something to say.
My newly found sense of isolation was immense. It was as though, like my family, the universe had become totally silent. It caused me such anxiety that I panicked and made quite a fuss for an extremely ill child.
My family was read the riot act. They came the next day laden with stuffed dogs and a curly-headed doll. And they fussed. They fussed like they never fussed before then or after.
To be honest, I didn’t know how to respond.
But over the years I have recognized in the impersonal yet personal attention of the nurses and my family’s acts of caring the other half of the link that we need to survive.
Compassion: the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
Compassion tells us that we are here, that we are seen, that we are known.
As I settled into contemplative prayer this afternoon, having understanding what compassion meant to me as my intention, I was fully aware of how my life has been blessed by the hugs of love from my daughter, unasked for acts of service from my son, encouraging smiles from those around me. But I kept feeling that there was something more. Something much more.
As my time of prayer came to an end, as I came out of the cloud of unknowing in which I had spent time, I saw myself kneeling at the altar rail. As I do at a service of healing, I raised my head when the priest neared. I felt the healing unction being applied in the shape of the cross on my forehead. And I heard the words, “I heal you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
Not that long ago I heard a nun say, JESUS IS REAL! She was a very urgent nun. Just look up, she said. See for yourself. Jesus is real. Jesus is here with us. The love of Jesus is what heals you. The love that Jesus has for you.
Jesus is real. Just see for yourself.
The ultimate compassion.
This is my ultimate compassion.
Jesus is real.
That’s my fact.