The Compassionate Heart
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”
In this Gospel story, Jesus is said to have compassion that comes from the very depths of his being. The word for compassion in Greek, splanchna, literally refers to the internal organs of the heart, lungs stomach, and bowels to signify that compassion emanates from deep within a human person. What does it mean to have a compassionate heart? There are at least three characteristics of a compassionate heart.
A compassionate heart is a disarmed heart. We all have been hurt by people, including people we trust and love. Naturally, we learn to be defensive to protect ourselves from being hurt. We develop a defended heart. We readily do not trust people around us. An overly or pathological defended heart is not one which naturally seek to help people out, a heart that is closed to others, a heart which does not allow itself to feel tenderness and love. A compassionate heart is the reverse of a defended heart. It is a disarmed heart in which it lowers its suspicions of others, and allows itself to be vulnerable and be touched by the sufferings of others. Jesus' heart is not overly defended for he allowed his heart to be touched by the sufferings of those thousands of men, women and children gathered in the wilderness like lost sheep without a shepherd.
Secondly, a compassionate heart is also an unboundaried heart. An unboundaried heart does not limit mercy to one's circles of family and friends. An unboundaried heart shows mercy to ALL suffering people, including people one does not like. Jesus showed compassion not only to his family and friends, but also to strangers and his enemies. Long time ago, I worked with a particularly troubled woman who is unhappy with her life. She created unhappiness all around chiefly by spreading gossip. My first reaction was naturally to feel anger towards her, and reject her just as others rejected her. Yet Jesus says that a compassionate heart that is at the same time an unboundaried heart must show mercy even to very difficult people. How do we do that? First, we acknowledge that suffering is universal; I suffer, you suffer, we all suffer. Suffering is something we all share. When we suffer, we are not always on our best state of mind or behavior.
Once we realize this, then we can see with eyes of mercy that the difficult person before us is difficult because he or she is trapped in his/her suffering so as to cause trouble around him/her. A compassionate heart would mean reaching out to that person, and offer whatever assistance to alleviate his/her suffering, and this could in turn reduce the suffering that that person causes. I remember a sick patient I once cared for twenty years ago. Despite my attempts to care for him, he was so nasty and rude to me that every time I would make a home visit, I would feel sick to my stomach. When he no longer needed my services because he had to go to the hospital, I finally said to myself, “Good riddance.” A year later, I received a call from him and he was very nice to me; he apologized for his behavior. He said he was in such emotional pain and despair over his illness that it caused him to lash out to all around him. But now that he was well, he could be nicer.
We don’t know the degree of pain people carry within them silently; we usually just see the nasty façade, but we couldn’t see the hurt they carry. So when we see nasty people around us, maybe we can try to develop compassion for them by remembering that they must be so hurting inside that they themselves cannot access that compassion that is within them.
Thirdly, a compassionate heart is also an “empty” heart. The emptiness I speak of here is not that kind of emptiness that produces dread or anxiety when we feel out of balance, or lacking purpose and meaning, or when we feel isolated or lonely. Rather, the emptiness I am speaking of here is one in which the heart is empty of unwholesome and unhealthy attitudes such as hate, blinding anger, greed, envy, and deceit because the presence of these things affects the heart's ability to see clearly with the eyes of compassion.
Part of our spiritual journey and discipline in acquiring a compassionate heart is to let go of things within us that have the capacity to inflict suffering onto others. I’ve said it before and I say it again today: to empty ourselves of these hurtful things, we must practice emptying by prayer and meditation. In our prayer life, we become aware of our brokenness and the effects of prayer and meditation is to have the space to choose to let go of those things that can cause sufferings to ourselves and others. Then we can expand our capacity for compassion.
© 2015 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a queer Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
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