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Thinking Out Loud

The Healing Power of Compassion

by Michael Jinkins | Jun 13, 2017

Healing power of compassionContrary to what the song says, "Rainy Days and Mondays" do not, in fact, get me down. Overcast, chilly, showery days tend to be among my favorite days, probably because as a kid rainy days gave me the perfect excuse to stay inside and read. It was "contrary to ordinary," therefore, (as another song says) that I was feeling pretty down one particular rainy Monday morning this spring.

I don't know if this ever happens to you, but it wasn't really depression. And I had nothing to be sad about. I just felt down. A little blue.

Still, life and work must go on, so after running by the office for a few minutes, I headed out for a visit with a potential "friend" of the seminary. These conversations with potential new friends of the seminary often are surprising. You meet the most amazing and wonderful people doing what I do. But when I got to the coffee shop on this particular morning for this particular appointment, I got a bigger surprise than usual.

We made small talk as we got our coffee. We talked about the usual kinds of things. But within just a few minutes, I found myself listening to someone pouring his heart out, exploring losses, griefs and struggles. My role that morning, I realized quickly, was to listen, and to listen actively. That was it. This person didn't need a seminary president. And he wasn't really looking for a pastor. He just needed another human being to connect with him.

There was a time when, especially as a young pastor, I would have been tempted to apply emotional bandages to this person's wounds. I would have rushed to do something, without realizing that my urge to do was mostly an attempt to manage my own anxiety. But sitting there listening to this person, I could also hear the echo of words from one of my clinical supervisors from long ago, "Don't just do something! Stand there!" Or sit there. Just sip your coffee, and listen.

I have no clue at all if my listening helped this person on that morning. No clue at all. But listening to him, hoping my silence was communicating a measure of compassion to him, completely turned my day around.

That was the big surprise.

After our visit – and I guess this visit went on for an hour or more – I got back into the car, and driving back down Lexington Road it suddenly occurred to me: my blues has lifted. I don't feel down any more.

Suddenly I realized I felt – and I do not use this word lightly – joyful. Really. Full to overflowing with joy.

Isn't that amazing?!

A few years ago, I was in a theological book group reading the late Hans Urs Von Balthasar's book titled simply, Prayer (published by Ignatius Press in San Francisco). The book is, as readers of Von Balthasar would expect, profoundly Trinitarian. At some point, while reading this book, something dawned on me. It may mean I hadn't been paying attention for a long time, but somehow in all the mix of doctrines I had studied, it had never sunk in at a personal level that when we talk about the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Christ, we are talking about the life-giving love beyond all measure that is God, the creative power of self-giving divine love that flows eternally from the Father to the Son, from the Son to the Father, and through the Son to each of us and all of creation.

When we love, we are tapping into that mighty rushing stream of God's essential being, that same power that created all things and holds all things in being, that same love which seeks to draw us into loving relationship with one another.

Whenever we respond to God in prayer – listening to God, opening our hearts to God – we stand in the face of a tsunami of God's love. Whenever we attend to one another, forgetting ourselves in the act of listening to someone else open their hearts, we are giving ourselves over to the outgoing tide of God's love.

To change metaphors to recall that word from which the word “spirit” is derived in our Bibles (in Hebrew, ruach; in Greek, pneuma), the spirit is the very living breath of God breathing through us. And whenever we love, our little human windmills are hit by a hurricane of life-transforming love flowing right from the heart of God.

We use pale expressions like "participating in the nature of God" to try to describe what it means to open ourselves to God's life in us. But we're really a lot like that poor blood-bloated little mosquito in the Gary Larson cartoon, stuck into a person's arm and swelling up alarmingly fast with his victim's blood. The mosquito sitting next to him is yelling, "Pull out! Pull out! You've hit an artery."

So why was I so surprised that I felt so full of joy, so full of life, after sitting across from someone for a while listening to him attentively enough that for just a while I forgot about myself? I had hit an artery of God's love. This wasn't really a professional relationship, not after the first five minutes. It was a human relationship that happened to get caught up into the mystery of the inner life of God the Trinity.

The really amazing thing was, I could hardly wait to experience it again.

Compassion might just be habit forming.

If I can remember to forget myself.

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