Compassion is not just about feeling for those who are easy to pity. Compassion means opening our hearts to love even the fearful, the hating and the violent.
I always find Lent a struggle. I always say I’m going to give up a load of things and end up indulging in them more than before. And I say I’m going to take up good things which, if it means putting in a regular effort, usually fall at the second (if not the first) hurdle.
This year, I began Lent by reading Sr Ilia Delio’s The Humility of God: a franciscan perspective. It is a short book, and although I’m not a fan of some of the theology Sr Ilia works through, her writing on the compassion of God and our need to be compassionate with ourselves and others is breathtaking. In my flat there hangs a poster of a painting of the crucifixion. I guess the idea is that I look at it and try to be compassionate with Christ, to see his passion. But what is Christ looking out on from the cross? The world’s passion, the world’s turmoil and broken-heartedness. To be compassionate with Christ is to inhabit the compassion of Christ for the world and for each of us.
I prayed for this sort of compassion. You should never do this. Asking things from God, especially virtues, never runs the riverbed you’d have expected. God tends to answer our earnest prayers in ways we don’t expect, often overwhelming.
It is my great joy and privilege, as a priest at Newcastle Cathedral, to spend a lot of time with the folk who live (either by day or full time) on the streets in the city centre. The highlight of my time at the cathedral thus far was joining with the cathedral ministry team and some of the street-homeless who generously volunteered to pick up the candle-wax in the cathedral left over from midnight mass on Christmas night. And then mushroom omelettes in the morning in the cathedral kitchen. I have grown to love very dearly some of the men and women with whom we share this city, and the cathedral would not be nearly so holy without them.
I am also a PhD student in Durham, and on Monday had had a truly frustrating day of “trying to work”. The clock inched round until I finally left my desk. Why is work sometimes just so hard on the heart? I was profoundly sad as I sat on the station waiting in the cold for a train home, and on the train I thought of all the ways I could make myself a little happier. I toyed with the idea of inviting some friends over for dinner, and decided against it. Too much effort.
I have a short walk from Newcastle’s central station to the Metro, up Grainger Street about five minutes to Monument. And every day I pass people who are street-homeless, some I know and some I avoid, hating myself for doing so. But this night as I passed a boy who looked about seventeen, a group of men started talking to him in an overly-friendly manner. I stopped and stood nearby, just waiting to see what might happen. And despite my hopes, their friendliness quickly turned sour. “Look at him, he’s just a f***ing junkie,” the biggest of them shouts, inches from the boy’s face. “You want some money?” he asks, offering a note. As the boy reaches to take it, the man whips it back, and clenches it in a raised fist. “You’ll get this instead, you scummy b***ard.”
I step over, and say hello to the boy, asking how he is. His eyes rise to mine, and the men step back for a moment. He moves his sleeping bag, and the light of a Nokia phone is just visible. “Look, he’s loaded! He’s got a phone, the b***ard! He’s taking the f***ing piss! I’m having your sleeping bag, you f***ing s**t!” The boy leaps up, and gathers his possessions as the men rip away his sleeping bag. He ducks several punches and they move down the street.
Sleeping bags are hard to come by. The folk who are part of the cathedral community lament when this comfort and protection is taken from them. It is one of the things that can really break a person’s spirits. I think they are a safe enough distance away, and move to pick up the sleeping back, and stash it near where the boy was sitting. I still think this was the right thing to do, but it was not safe. The men rounded on me, and when I asked them what they were doing, one of them held me back, shoving my chest, as another laughed and the third continued trying to beat the boy. “Look at him, he’s crying, the little s**t.” And to me,”Don’t you f***ing dare, you b***ard. That ****’s got it coming, the scum. I bet you’d like to f***ing help him, thieving ****.” In the end, it was their turning on me that lost them their prey. The boy managed to make a dash for it, with his sleeping bag, and they were distracted enough by this to let me go for long enough for me to escape as well. “Why don’t you help someone who f***ing needs it, you prick!” I hear them shout. Throughout the whole interaction, my dog collar had been clearly visible.
Compassion, Lies, Hatred and Death
What I did was in some senses rather stupid. Far safer to stand and watch, as about twenty people did. But there was something so unholy about what was being done, and to a young person who really did look like a child. I don’t care what people say about the culpability of many of the folk in our city centres, when a person is in a situation in which they are willing to sit in the cold, being spat at and vulnerable to attack, they are utterly deserving of compassion. Here was one being crucified for sins that were not his own. Here was one a Christian should see as Christ, and as Christ sees them. Standing in solidarity, hanging on to the foot of that boy’s cross was easy.
But what about the three men? Their hatred of this boy was irrational. They didn’t know him, they didn’t really care to find out who he was or the truth of his situation. The boy for them was a symbol, a symbol which evoked this formidable response. Why? When I looked into the eyes of the man who pushed me and held me, I saw a fire burning, a hatred blazing that distorted and hid his humanity behind a veil of something terrible. What was it?
One of the hardest things about being a Christian is learning really to accept the sovereign abundance of God. I don’t mean accepting the idea of it, but really accepting in your heart and in every moment of your life that God is the one who in every second of creation, in every place in creation, is willing for all of us fullness of life. In every moment of existence, God’s arms are opened wide, fashioning a space for us to flourish. In times good and bad, God is providing for us in ways we often cannot comprehend. This faith, this perspective, this way of life is one which opens our hearts to welcome, to share, to give and to love.
But alas from the cradle we are sold a different narrative. There is not enough in this world for everyone; there could never be enough in this world for me; there is not enough for me to feel safe and so I must hoard what I have and defend it against those who would take it from me; there is always someone coming, I don’t know where from, to seize this treasure of safety I have built and I must always watch out. This narrative – of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear rather than generosity, of walls rather than welcome, of me over you – is the most powerful antidote to the Christian faith and to human flourishing. It takes the human heart of flesh and replaces it with a heart of stone (Ezekiel 36), cold, hard and impregnable. It takes away our holy ability to give and receive love and replaces it instead with hatred.
These men were terrified, of the scarcity which they experienced in their lives and the scarcity they feared was coming for them in the future. And this fear led them to hate, to hate a symbolic person who was taking from them, who was consuming what would give them a better life and better security, who was somehow tricking them and laughing at them. The lie of scarcity, the fear of lack, leads to powerful hatred, and it is almost always directed at those who are actually even more vulnerable, even more lacking, even more afraid of scarcity. These three men were so afraid, and so filled with symbolic hate, that they were not able to see the boy in a sleeping bag: they only saw the enemy, the trickster they feared.
The lie, then fear and hate, distorted their sight and their reason even as it ate their hearts.
What could they do but lash out? Hatred begotten of lies has no resolution but violence. It cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be sated, for it does not dwell in reality. Hatred begotten of lies is a child of unreality, of inhumanity. It can only destroy reality, can only deface humanity. When confronted with life, even life crying on the street, it can only proceed by waging destruction and death.
Lent of Compassion
I wish I had been bold enough to say, “What can I do for you?” when the man shouted after me, “Why don’t you help someone who f***ing needs it?” But I was too busy getting away. To see the world as Christ sees it is to see it from the cross. In the crucifixion scene in my flat, the people around the cross are absorbed in the horror of Jesus’ suffering. But Jesus has been looking out from the cross to the world.
To see the world as it truly is is not to buy into lies. Of scarcity or anything else. But rather to see God providing, God caring for and God loving all, even when what we see at first glance seems utterly unlovable, lacking and uncherished. “Eat and drink in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” the eucharistic liturgy tells us. And if Christ died for me, he died that these impossible ones might know fullness of life too.
I do not know how to abolish the violence, the hatred and fear that dehumanise our streets, our homes and our hearts. But for my part, I must grow ever deeper in compassion. Compassion as the antidote for the lies of scarcity; compassion to force apart of the walls which crowd us in on every side and make our world small and dark; compassion which makes space for human flourishing in the true reality which is God’s loving abundance.
“Pray daily that your heart may be enlarged, and your understanding of the scriptures deepened,” Bishop Christine charged me at my ordination as priest. Lord, this Lent and for all my life, may it be so.