Pity masquerades as compassion, though it is anything but that. In fact, many Buddhists call it a near enemy to compassion. That is, pity is close enough to imitate compassion even as it undermines it. Pity says something like this: “Her affliction horrifies me and I feel sorry for her.” Being repelled by the misery, we actually separate ourselves from that person whose condition so bothers us. And, of course, we cannot help feeling a bit superior: “Thank God I am not her!”
Compassion, in contrast, is based on love, and it draws us deep into others’ lives to walk with them in their pain. Compassion also makes us vulnerable to one another. I have found it revealing that the Buddhist term for compassion is karuna, which means “quaking heart.” All the more fascinating is the corresponding term in the New Testament, splanknizomai, literally “moved from the bowels.” Compassion calls on our depths and takes us deeply into some of the most profound exigencies of the human condition.
Compassion also strongly bonds us to one another. Consider someone who has entered your life with great compassion at a time when you have been particularly hurting. Or consider a time when you have done this with another. The bond thus forged is not easily forgotten. How could it be, when you have shared such vulnerability, when your hearts quaked together, when your souls were stirred to their foundations?
The Gospel reading tells of Jesus going into the desert for 40 days and then beginning his public ministry. Mark describes the desert period in only two sentences: “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.” Consider his vulnerability, driven out by the Spirit, harassed by the tempter and dwelling among the extremes of creation. His life was not his own.
Today’s reading from the First Letter of Peter is part of what is widely believed to be a post-baptismal exhortation. In this short reading Peter describes Christ’s death as a sacrificial atonement and alludes to the Noah story (our first reading) as a great image. The flood “prefigured baptism, which saves you now.” Peter also says something that is, quite frankly, weird: “He also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient....” I do not take this claim literally, as if the post-crucified, pre-resurrection Jesus spent Holy Saturday sharing a version of the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, I see this as the Crucified One bringing his saving presence to the darkest possible place of the human condition. Old Testament Sheol was a watery world of no hope, no life and no God. Jesus shared this experience. With his freeing love he entered into the abyss of human darkness.
On this first Sunday of Lent, we would do well to consider this period as a particular time of compassion—that is, a deeper entering into the human condition with an engagement that moves us to our depths. The traditional three practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving make a good start. We pray so that we can more profoundly commune with the One who has called us into being and draws us into his universal love. We fast to bond with the two billion people around the world who go to bed hungry. We give alms to free ourselves from greed so as to become free for union with those in great need.
Lent is a time for us to be especially mindful of our capacity for compassion. Lent calls us to enter deeply into human existence with great vulnerability and great love, to live with a quaking heart.