July 15, 2018 – John’s Love Letter: Part 4 ~ The Perfection of Love

July 17, 2018

Reflection: John’s Love Letter: Part 4 ~ The Perfection of Love July 15/18
The picture on the front of your bulletin today is one that I first came across as a child on a road trip to California with my family. We stopped at a hotel that was on the grounds of an old mission, and for some reason, one of the things they’d retained from the mission was a beautiful reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Pieta”. Even then, at 12 years old, the emotion of the statue spoke to me. Mary’s deep grief over the terrible death of her son leaps out from the sculpture, and touches the heart. I’ve carried that image with me ever since, and it was an absolute thrill for me to finally see the real statue on my visit to Italy some years ago.
It turns out that this statue is one of the things I have in common with my favourite spiritual writer Joyce Rupp. As a young nun in the order of the Servants of Mary, that statue sat at the front of their chapel, and spoke to her of compassion – of the power of sharing the suffering of others and reaching out to help alleviate it. In her new book, Boundless Compassion, Joyce writes about how the ministry of compassion has driven her since her very young days, and in the last few years she has founded a teaching institute to help Christians deepen their compassion. She had the opportunity in the course of her studies to attend a program offered by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in which he taught families how to grow in compassion. She wondered to herself at the time, “Who teaches this to Christians?” And so her particular ministry was born, providing training in compassion through a six week program or a retreat weekend – a process I hope to share with you in the future.
John’s letters discuss the importance of love in action, so we’ve heard a lot about love in the last few weeks. We haven’t really aken time to define it, though, have we? By love, I don’t mean fondness or affection or emotional attachment. When Jesus called us to “love our enemies” I don’t think that’s what he was talking about – though if you can manage to feel fondness for the people who frighten or anger or upset you, God bless you! It’s more than I’m able to do most of the time!
I believe what Jesus was talking about is a combination of compassion and kindness. In a sense, kindness might be considered the active dimension of compassion. There are lots of definitions of compassion, which comes from the words “to suffer with”. Jesus is our teacher of compassion – so willing to suffer with others that he took up a cross and died a human death. Joyce Rupp reminds us that for Christians “Compassion is a way of life – an inner posture of how to be with suffering, both our own and others, and a desire to move that attitude into action” (Rupp, Suggestions, Boundless Compassion). “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerful with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” (Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrise, and Henri Nouwen, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, p.3-4) In other words, compassion is not for wimps! It takes courage, empathy, strength and spiritual depth. This is what it is to love as Jesus loved.
One of the things I’ve realized anew, even in the beginnings of praying with these reflections on compassion, is how much fear can stunt our compassion. What is it that keeps us from being compassionate towards those we consider opposed to us? What is it that allows us to wall ourselves of from people who seem to threaten us – us as individuals, our values, our economic wellbeing, our political alliances? Isn’t it fear? Aren’t we afraid that if we show compassion towards people to whom we are opposed that they will use that compassion to attack or undermine us or seek power over us? Yet we are assured that “perfect love casts out fear”; that the more we deepen in compassion, the less our fear will govern our thoughts and actions and the more we will be able to truly love our enemies and do good to those who oppress us.
When compassion deepens in me, I can look at someone spewing hate, and ask myself, “What happened to an innocent child that this is who they have become?” and I can feel compassion for them. I can listen to a brother or sister in Christ who has verbally attacked me and wonder, “What is wrong in their life that these are the emotions and words that come to them?” I can wonder about the source of pain or fear that is feeding the violent actions I see and hear about on the news every day, and I can pray for the healing of that pain and fear.
None of this comes easily. Even Jesus needed a reminder to be compassionate at least once in his life, if the story of the Canaanite woman who was first rejected by him is accurate. Do you remember that story? A woman came asking for healing for her daughter, and Jesus turned her down because she wasn’t a Jew. She was brave enough to persist, and Jesus not only healed her daughter but praised her faith (Matt 15:21-28). Joyce Rupp has made it her mission to help us grow in this difficult, life-long journey of deepening our compassion. Today I wanted to share just one meditation of hers, to help us along the road to the perfection of love: (Growing Seeds of Compassion, p.75-77, Prayers of Boundless Compassion by Joyce Rupp)
(Each person has a seed, and is invited to pray with that seed, that represents the beginnings of compassion in them. They are invited to think about someone who may need compassion, and to pray about what needs to grow in them to offer that person compassion. Then a breath prayer is offered, breathing in with “Seed of Compassion” and breathing out with “Growing in me”. Finally a concluding prayer is said.)

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