Two Sides to Compassion: The Yin and the Yang

In the Jewish tradition, compassion is recognized as “the secret name for God.”  One might say that Jesus let the secret out of the bag when he teaches: “Be you compassionate as your Creator in heaven is compassionate.”  (Lk 6: 36) 

Peaceful warriors for justice: candlelight vigil for Black Lives Matter, 6/6/20 at Pueblo, CO. Photo by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

It is important to recognize that there are two sides to compassion: Call it the Yin side and the Yang side, the feminine side and the masculine side.  The feminine side is more like water and the masculine side is more like fire.  The feminine side feels more like peace and the masculine side feels more like justice—which often demands a fierce struggle and warrior energy, for injustice usually puts up an immense fight.  Aquinas says, “compassion is the fire that Jesus came to set on the earth.”  This is yang language. 

Actual images of a fetus growing in utero. Uploaded to YouTube by Obvious and Unbelievable.

In the prophetic tradition “compassion means justice” (Eckhart); and in the mystical tradition compassion means swimming in the fetal waters of togetherness—surely this is why in both Hebrew and Arabic the word for compassion comes from the word for womb.  The womb is an ultimate place of interdependence—both the mother and the fetus are interdependent and in a relationship of mutuality.

We yearn, as Otto Rank recognized, for this mutuality our whole lives long—and to build a world or community where such mutuality can play out once again in our conscious world when we separate from the womb, enter the world, and grow up to serve one another in mutual interdependence.

“Black and White Chords” by Rawpixel, on Pexels

Meister Eckhart speaks to the two sides of compassion when he says: “Compassion is where peace and justice kiss.”  Peace is the yin; justice is the yang.  They are not separate but are conjoined in us all, a yearning for peace and a yearning for justice, with a willingness to work for both. 

Thomas Aquinas celebrates compassion this way: “Among all the things that cause enjoyment concerning the Lord, there are two—namely, compassion and justice.”  If you “take justice away, no one will be secure and happy.  Likewise, without compassion all are fearful and do not love.”  He cites the psalmist who says, “The Lord loves compassion and justice.”  

“A quote from Pope Paul VI” Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

Eckhart has a special gift to offer us when speaking of both sides of compassion, so let us invite him to be our guide for now.  Indeed, I discovered Eckhart when I was researching for my book on A Spirituality Named Compassion and I was  beginning to despair about how little was written in Christian history about compassion—how much more ink was spilled on “contemplation” than on compassion.  Then I discovered Eckhart’s amazing commentaries on Luke 6:26 and on the “Our Father” prayer of Jesus and further thrilling teachings on compassion. 

Let us explore more fully both the yin side and the yang or justice side of compassion.  To be continued

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Passion for Creation: Meister Eckhart’s Earth-Honoring Spirituality, “Be you compassionate as your Creator in Heaven is compassionate,” pp. 417-439.  

See also: Matthew Fox, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times, pp. 113-116.

See also: Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion.

Banner Image: “Water Fire Taiji.” Image by root on

Do you also recognize both a Yin side and a Yang side to compassion?  How does that play out in your soul, your spiritual practice, and your sacred activism?

The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times

A stunning spiritual handbook drawn from the substantive teachings of Aquinas’ mystical/prophetic genius, offering a sublime roadmap for spirituality and action.
Foreword by Ilia Delio.
“What a wonderful book!  Only Matt Fox could bring to life the wisdom and brilliance of Aquinas with so much creativity. The Tao of Thomas Aquinas is a masterpiece.”
–Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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3 thoughts on “Two Sides to Compassion: The Yin and the Yang”

  1. Avatar

    I am reading Andrew Harvey’s “The Hope”, all about Sacred Activism, in which he notes that: “..anger through love becomes fierce compassion”. which is just what you are teaching here and everywhere. Thank you.

    1. Avatar

      What a wonderful phrase, much needed as we experience cries for social justice. “Anger through love becomes fierce compassion,” this is such a different motivator than is shown by counter-demonstrators whose actions, for the most part, display anger, but lack love and compassion.

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