Saturday, February 4, 2017


The gospel for today’s mass (Saturday, Feb.4) ends with this sentence,

When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things. (Mk 6:34)

Although I was reading an English translation, I immediately spotted one of my favorite Greek words in the phrase “his heart was moved with pity for them.” It’s actually a verb based on the Greek word for the inner organs of the abdomen, the bowels,which were considered to be the seat of the deep emotions. Thus the translation “his heart was moved with pity;” another translation might be “he was moved with compassion.”

In consulting a commentary on this passage I read this statement by John R. Donohue, S.J.: “‘Compassion' is the bridge from sympathy to action.”

The Akashi Bridge in Japan
That quotation provided plenty for me to meditate on both before and during Morning Prayer. I kept picturing long, handsome suspension bridges such as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge in Japan, (its central span of 1.2 miles is the longest in the world).

Think of the efforts, time and investment of resources that it takes to build such bridges --bridges don’t just happen. I thought about my actions as a classroom teacher. I have a student who has lots of issues and problems, and I feel sympathy for him. But if my reaction stops with sympathy, I’m not responding to Christ’s call. When I stand before the Judgement Seat, Christ says, it won’t be enough for me to say, “When you were hungry it made me sad, when you were naked I felt really lousy, when you were thirsty I felt sorry for you.” Those are three bridges that never got built, bridges from sympathy to action.

More than sympathy
In Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the Levite and the priest who came upon the man lying on the side of the road undoubtedly felt sympathy for the poor fellow, but  they walked on past. Then came the Samaritan, but he (here’s our Greek word) felt compassion, and the bridge spanned the gap between sympathy and action. We know the rest of the tale: the Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds and took him to an inn and paid the man’s expenses. Bridges take effort.

The bridge at Avignon. Notice anything?
Bridges also demand a lot of maintenance (the famous “pont d’Avignon” of the song kept collapsing whenever the Rhone flooded, and so was abandoned in the 17th century. Only four of its arches are left, a bizarre reminder of how much work it takes to keep a bridge intact.)

Am I willing to work at building and maintaining bridges of compassion in my life as a teacher? As a confrere in the monastery?

Is the United States of America willing to maintain bridges of compassion with less-developed nations, or will we confine ourselves to sympathy, excusing ourselves from the difficult task of compassion by hiding behind mottoes like “America for Americans.”

International relations is a complicated field of which I know next to nothing. But the Church does have the obligation to preach the message of the Kingdom, and insist that compassion is a crucial Christian value that we ignore at our peril as individuals and as a people.

Meanwhile, I have plenty of bridges to build and maintain in Room 36 in St. Benedict’s Prep.

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