Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I had an epidural injection almost a week ago and it certainly reduced the level of pain in my back. At least I can stand long enough to concelebrate mass, for example, but I'm still not able to just take a walk for exercise. I hope that maybe a second treatment might give me that gift. Meanwhile even as I do my best to get rid of it I'm still trying to learn from my pain .

Recently I've been learning, for instance, the just because I have experienced or am experiencing pain does not automatically make me empathic towards others who are suffering. I found out that this has to be a conscious choice on my part to deliberately leave myself open to feeling someone else's suffering. The reward for doing this, though, is that I become a deeper, richer and fuller person -- and surely a better friend.

Early this morning I was reading Mark's account of the agony in the garden (Mk 14:33 ff.) which begins

"Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, 'Sit here while I pray.' He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, 'My soul is sorrowful even to death.'"

I deliberately tried to let myself feel some of Jesus' very human terror, distress and sorrow-unto-death. If I remember correctly I started out by first becoming conscious of the pain in my back (which was definitely there at the time); anyway, from there I quickly moved into Gethsemane and spent some time sharing a little of our Savior's terrible ordeal. It was not an intellectual exercise but a time of empathy and intimacy. Then as I walked to my choir stall to begin Vigils at 6:00 a.m. it suddenly hit me as if for the first time that God is completely and perfectly empathetic with us, sharing our sufferings as well as our joys. A whole series of examples came flooding into my head as we started praying the psalms. Especially, of course, from the life of Jesus, who became flesh precisely so that he could empathize with us. His "being moved with compassion" is often what motivates him to perform healings and other miracles.

The Greek word for compassion, splanchna (splangkh'-nah), is an interesting and powerful metaphor. It is actually a plural noun meaning "the internal organs of the abdomen." Since the strong emotions were thought to be located in the inner organs such as the intestines, the heart, and the spleen, splanchna came also to mean, depending on the context, "affection" or "compassion."It is used in Mary's song of praise, the "Magnificat," in the phrase "because of the tender mercy [the splanchna] of our God" (Luke 1:78). This quality of God shows up more clearly in the verb form, splanchnizomai, (splangkh-nid'-zom-ahee) means "moved with compassion, moved with pity." Two of Jesus' best known miracles begin with this verb. First, at the sight of the bereaved widow of Naim, who is about to bury her only son "he was moved with pity [splanchnizomai] for her and said to her, 'Do not weep'" (Luke 7:13). The story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes begins with Jesus calling his disciples to him and saying, "I have compassion [splanchnizomai]for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way" (Matthew 15:32). Jesus is "moved with pity" to cleanse a leper in Mark 1:41, and to give sight to a group of blind men in Matthew 20:32-34. I believe that by consciously cultivating a sense of empathy for my brothers and sisters I have a better chance of becoming a little more Christ-like in my relationships with them.

Finally there's one more aspect of this pain business that has been profitable. I've been wrestling with the manuscript for a new book about "spirituality for troubled times." The task of writing this particular manuscript makes me empathize with those guys who wrestle alligators in the swamps down south: the book is full of surprises, new twists and unforeseen turns, and always seems ready to turn around and bite me. Anyway, I think that maybe my developing empathy for others might turn out to be the secret to conquering the alligator. If I believe that the reader is willing to identify with my own experiences of suffering and to empathize with me, then I will be willing to use my own experiences of suffering to make various points, trusting that this approach will be a lot more effective and engaging than a safe, objective book written from the outside looking dispassionately in on some theoretical world of pain and sorrow. There's a lot more to come on this subject, obviously. I'll let you know. Maybe I'll show you the teeth marks some time.

.......................Okay, I know: this is actually a crocodile!

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