Spirituality of Compassion

Some years ago I visited Paris. The highlight of this trip was a visit to the Louvre, the home of Leonardo de Vinci’s Mona Lisa and other masterpieces of art and sculpture. It was here that I discovered a whole new understanding of the word “compassion.” Most importantly, an understanding of its significance for the spiritual life, which would evolve over time. Of course, I am using the term “compassion” in a very special sense, more in the way that Buddhists use the term. Nothing to do with pity or empathy.

Aesthetic Experiences. As I stood there gazing at the Mona Lisa, I became deeply aware of my fatigue, jet lag and the limited amount of time I could spare. Suddenly, I got the inspiration to ask myself: “Given my disposition, how can I enter into the beauty of this masterpiece?” In response, a profound inspiration flashed through my mind: “You must be fully present, in a caring and attentive way to it so as to receive the presence and beauty of this masterpiece.” In other words, I had to give as gift my presence, my mind, my heart, my whole person to this painting in order to receive its gift. It worked!

I called this exercise “compassion.” I applied this practice to


other forms of art such as sculpture, music, ballet, and, of course, to the beauty of nature. When we go to the opera, before the curtain opens, I spend 10 minutes practicing compassion, trying to be fully present with a caring heart and an attentive mind. This exercise has greatly enhanced all my aesthetic experiences.

Relational Experiences. My practice of compassion to the arts led me to yet another discovery. I have a retarded son who continues to say his childlike evening prayers, even though we have taught him more adult prayers. I found it difficult to stop what I was doing to listen to him. One day, I was inspired to ask myself: “Could my practice of compassion to the arts and nature change my experience with my son if I        compassionately listened to his childlike prayers?” As I allowed myself to become fully present in a caring and attentive way to my son, I discovered that he had a gift to give me—his simplicity in his relationship to God.

Further, I discovered that the practice of compassion was the basis of radical love─loving others despite their negative qualities and my negative feelings. For you can’t be judgmental of others when you have gifted yourself to them. But I also learned that you cannot use the practice of compassion as simply a technique. On one occasion, in the middle of a heated discussion, I decided that I would keep my cool by practicing compassion. Initially, I became fully present, with a caring heart and an attentive mind. However, I could not hold onto that disposition. I learned that you cannot fake compassion: you have to truly give yourself as gift; you have to truly surrender your mind and heart to those present. Your power is in your powerlessness.

Spiritual Experiences. The above experiences led me naturally to apply the practice of compassion to my so-called “spiritual” experiences. For years I struggled with the ritual of the Mass to experience its meaning. So, I began to go to Mass early so I could prepare myself through the practice of compassion for celebration. As a result, the Mass ritual and words became more meaningful. Even more importantly, this initial experience has evolved so that I have now created a spirituality for fully entering into the experience of Eucharistic Celebrations.

What that experience has taught me is that the practice of compassion empowers one to love what is initially unlovable, and then becomes the catalyst for growth in understanding and love.

When I began the exercise of centering prayer—prayer without words, I was greatly helped by my practice of compassion. For now I was being fully present, in a caring and attentive way to the Spirit within me. Here the practice of compassion became prayer─without the words. It became love of God.

I see a commonality between these three different experiences of compassionate living. First, all three─aesthetic, relational and spiritual─demand that we encounter the other in a peak experience, employing our mind, heart, gut and will. We must experience our full personhood in play. We must be fully engaged with the other.

Second, all three demand that we fully gift ourselves to the other, whether the other be the arts, other people, or God. Self-gift is key.

Third, all three require that the Spirit empower us to offer ourselves as self-gift. For as Theologian Gregory Baum reminds us: “Human existence is so deeply wounded and threatened by sin that the passage from fear to trust, from hostility to love, from ignorance to self-knowledge, from passivity to creativity, from self-centeredness to concern for others, are never purely natural events, determined by our own resources. They are always gifts.” Always begin: “Holy Spirit, enable me to live compassionately.”

The Spirit permeates all of our life and enables us to experience our high points. The spiritual life is all about being present to the Divine Presence. Compassionate living is at the heart of a Spirit-centered spirituality. Make the practice of compassion a habit!