Compassion: Another “C” Naming What It Means to be Human

We are exploring an overall question the last few months: “What does it mean to be human?”

“Birth of a nation.” Photo by Mike Fritcher on Flickr.

The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel addresses our big question this way:

A dreadful oblivion prevails in the world.  The world has forgotten what it means to be human.  The gap is widening and the abyss is within the self.

He spoke this warning over fifty years ago at a Catholic Liturgical Conference gathering in Milwaukee in 1969, not long after the Second Vatican Council. 

How much has this gap widened and how deep has the abyss become since he uttered them?  How dreadful has our forgetfulness, our oblivion, evolved in the last fifty-one years?

In recent DM’s, we have been drawing on the “10 C’s” of creation spirituality to address that question.  The most recent “C” we have been considering has been Creativity.  Now I invite you into a new “C,” that of Compassion.

“Jesus wept.” Photographer unknown.

In my study of my own faith traditions, Christianity and Judaism (since both are housed together in my Bible and since Jesus was a student and practitioner of the latter), I find that both put forward Compassion as the essential meaning of Divinity and of our Imitation of Divinity in this lifetime. 

As I pointed out in my major study on compassion, A Spirituality Named Compassion, compassion is all about interdependence and the living out of our interdependence.  I began that book with a sentence from Thomas Merton spoken three hours before his death (most likely a martyrdom) in Thailand 52 years ago.  He said:

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.

BLM Colorado Uncompahgre Field Office staff and one committed volunteer teach Delta County fourth graders about ecosystem connections and interdependence, Earth Day 2016. Photo by Bureau of Land Management on Flickr.

Compassion then is a way of seeing the world and acting on that vision.   Once seeing it as intersubjective and interdependent, then our response is to both rejoice and celebrate with one another; and to work to relieve one another’s pain. 

Interdependence calls for that kind of participation in action.  As Meister Eckhart put it, “What happens to another, whether it be a joy or a sorrow, happens to me.”  This is not just deep mystical teaching—it is also today’s physics. 

There is a habit in the universe of interdependence—not rugged individualism, not “I win, you lose,” but co-operation.  That is why, in spite of the bad news that we see daily, there is hope in our time when science and great spiritual traditions can agree on what it means to be human.  It means: Act out our interdependence.  Practice compassion.

“Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim” – “In the Name of Allah, the most merciful, the most compassionate” is the statement to precede any chapter of the Holy Quran. Artwork uploaded to Flickr by Islamic Pictures.

It is not just the Jewish and Christian traditions that agree on this central foundation of authentic religion. 

We see it in Buddhism when the Dalai Lama declares: “We can do away with all religion, but we can’t do away with compassion—compassion is my religion.”

And in the Koran, by far the most commonly used name for Allah is “Allah, the compassionate one.” 

A consensus is afoot.  Science and Religions are in cahoots.

See Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion.

See Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, pp. 377-403.

See also Matthew Fox, Original Blessing.

Banner Image: “The Good Samaritan” by Lawrence W. Ladd, c. 1880. On Wikimedia Commons.

Do you resonate with Heschel’s warning that a “dreadful oblivion” or forgetfulness is taking over the human race?  Do you think the crisis has gotten worse since he spoke those words over 50 years ago?

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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