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Center for Action and Contemplation

Mirrored Suffering Leads to Compassion 

Monday, September 18, 2023

Father Richard reflects on how sitting with our own suffering allows us to extend compassion to others:  

The outer poverty, injustice, and absurdity we see when we look around us mirrors our own inner poverty, injustice, and absurdity. The person who is poor outside is an invitation to the person who is poor inside. As we nurture compassion for the brokenness of things, and learn to move between action and contemplation, then we find compassion and sympathy for brokenness within ourselves. We, too, are full of pain and negativity, and sometimes there is little we can do about it.  

Each time I was recovering from cancer, I had to sit with my own broken absurdity as I’ve done with others at the jail or hospital or soup kitchen. The suffering person’s pain and poverty is visible and extroverted; mine is invisible and interior, yet just as real. The two sympathies and compassion connect and become one world. I think that’s why Jesus said we have to recognize Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters. It was for our redemption, our liberation, our healing—not merely to “help” others and put a check on our spiritual resume. Rather, when we see it over there, we’re freed in here, and become less judgmental. I can’t look down on a person receiving welfare when I realize I’m receiving God’s welfare. It all becomes one truth; the inner and the outer reflect one another.  

As compassion and sympathy flow from us to any person marginalized for whatever reason, wounds are bandaged—both theirs and ours. We’ll never bandage them all, nor do we need to, but we do need to get close to the wounds. That idea is imaged so well in the gospels with Thomas, the doubting apostle, who wanted to figure things out in his head. He had done too much inner work, too much analyzing. He always needed more data before making a move. Then Jesus told Thomas to put his finger inside the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side (John 20:27). Then and only then did Thomas begin to understand what faith is all about. [1]   

Jesus invites Thomas and all doubters into a tangible religion, one that makes touching human pain and suffering the way into both compassion and understanding. For most of us, the mere touching of another’s wound probably feels like an act of outward kindness; we don’t realize that its full intended effect is to change us as much as it might change them (there’s no indication that Jesus changed, only Thomas). Human sympathy is the best and easiest way to open heart space and to make us live inside our own bodies. God never intended most human beings to become philosophers or theologians, but God does want all humans to represent God’s own sympathy and empathy. And it’s okay if it takes a while to get there. [2]  


[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 108–109. 

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe  (New York: Convergent, 2019, 2021), 113.  

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Taylor Wilson, Transfiguration (detail), cyanotype, used with permission. Taylor Wilson, Madonna and Messiah, ink, used with permission. Alma Thomas, The Eclipse, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian. Click here to enlarge image

The rounded lines of mother and child echo the compassion we express toward others. 

Story from Our Community:  

I am in the midst of losing my husband to vascular dementia. Sometimes he thinks I am his mother and sometimes just a nice lady. Recently, I found my faith and patience crumbling when his incessant questions circled again and again and I could not calm him down. Finally, at my wits end, I surrendered to a 9-day sacred prayer process. Calling on the Holy One to aid me, I prayed that I would be provided with compassion, love, and the ability to care for him. After 9 days, I let go and allowed it to be. That was nearly 4 months ago. Each day is a cycle of questions, repeated many times. I no longer care how many times I answer them. Compassion fills my heart. Love encircles us. Peace prevails. —Katherine B. 

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