On Compassion

Compassion for the self and for others is a pathway to peace and harmony, and what the world needs right now.

Virgin of Tenderness, Russian icon

The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee

One aspect of mindfulness in Buddhist practice is cultivating the virtue of compassion. The meditation includes self-compassion along with compassion for those you know, and finally extended towards all living creatures.

Mindfulness practitioners acknowledge that self-compassion is particularly difficult to achieve. Mahatma Ghandi once famously said that, in the end, his worst enemy was not so much the British Empire or anything else external, but himself. Self-compassion enables us to forgive ourselves and thereby reach out to others, overcoming anger, resentment, bitterness and hatred.

Compassion for the self and for others is thus a pathway to peace and harmony, and ultimately to a better world.

Christian faith concurs with this vision of compassion, and Christian meditators often practice the same meditation.

Yet mindfulness within a monotheistic tradition such as Christianity, Judaism or Islam, brings a unique perspective on compassion. In the first place, in these religious traditions compassion belongs first and foremost to God. It is constitutive of the divine nature.

The Hebrew Scriptures express this clearly, since the divine love is grounded in God’s creation of all things: ‘The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made’ (Psalm 145:9). The New Testament sees the person who loves as already connected to God because love defines God: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’ (1 John 4:16).

Secondly, our religious faiths give place not only to compassion but also to divine judgement. This is a scary thought, evoking Mediaeval images of hell-fire, or memories of harsh judgementalism and rejection. But divine judgement is not like that. It is the pronouncing of God’s No against all that is evil and oppressive, all that demeans and harms, all that leads us to self-rejection and the rejection of others.

We need to hear that divine ‘No’ and to echo it, not by judging and condemning others, but by standing up against evil wherever we encounter it: in our political systems as much as in our hearts.

God’s judgement is part of God’s love. Because of that love, God censures our selfish acts, our self-hatred, our coldness and indifference to the suffering of others, our despoiling of the earth. Even so God does not reject us, but offers us instead forgiveness and healing, and the chance for a transformed life.

It is wonderful to meditate on compassion for ourselves, for others and for all living creatures. But by itself our own compassion, no matter how often or how successfully we meditate, is not enough. By ourselves we cannot fill the world with loving kindness. We need the loving grace and mercy of God to aid us and we need to hear the voice of God against injustice. God’s love is the first and hopefully will be the last word on our lives. When we struggle to love, when we are unable to forgive, when we can’t move beyond bitterness at another’s wrongdoing or at our own stupidity, God’s forgiving compassion and grace enfolds us.

Let’s keep on meditating on compassion, inviting it more and more into our hearts. But let’s put God at the centre of all loving kindness, no matter how much or how little we know or believe. Let’s listen for the voice of God, summoning us to strive for goodness and justice. And let’s allow ourselves, again and again, to be bathed in that divine compassion which is the only hope for ourselves and for the world.


Category: Theological School