Smelling like the Sheep
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
A compassionate presence is one of the fruits of contemplation. In Richard Rohr’s book Eager to Love, he writes about the great compassion of St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) for others, which is inspired by the great compassion of Jesus.
The most obvious change that results from the holding and allowing that we learn in the practice of contemplative prayer is that we will naturally become much more compassionate and patient toward just about everything. Compassion and patience are the absolutely unique characteristics of true spiritual authority, and without any doubt are the way both St. Francis and St. Clare (1194–1253) led their communities. They led, not from above, and not even from below, but mostly from within, by walking with their brothers and sisters, or “smelling like the sheep,” as Pope Francis puts it. . . .
A spiritual leader who lacks basic human compassion has almost no power to change other people, because people intuitively know he or she does not represent the Whole and Holy One. Such leaders need to rely upon roles, laws, costume, and enforcement powers to effect any change in others. Such change does not go deep, nor does it last. In fact, it is not really change at all. It is mere conformity.
We see this movement toward a shared compassion in all true saints. For example, St. Francis was able to rightly distinguish between institutional evil and the individual who is victimized by it. He still felt compassion for the individual soldiers fighting in the crusades, although he objected to the war itself. He realized the folly and yet the sincerity of their patriotism, which led them, however, to be un-patriotic to the much larger kingdom of God, where he placed his first and final loyalty. What Jesus calls “the Reign of God” we could call the Great Compassion.
Catholic author Judy Cannato, who worked to integrate the Gospels with the new cosmology, believed this Great Compassion was Jesus’ primary objective. She writes:
The realm of God that Jesus preached and died for was one that was known for its kindness and generosity, its compassion and healing. There was no one deemed outside the love of the Holy One whom Jesus called “Father.” No one was excluded from fellowship, not the rich or poor, male or female, slave or free. Jesus went beyond superficial divisions and called for a culture of compassion.
Compassion changes everything. Compassion heals. Compassion mends the broken and restores what has been lost. Compassion draws together those who have been estranged or never even dreamed they were connected. Compassion pulls us out of ourselves and into the heart of another, placing us on holy ground where we instinctively take off our shoes and walk in reverence. Compassion springs out of vulnerability and triumphs in unity. 
Only people at home in such a spacious place can take on the social illnesses of their time, and even the betrayal of friends, and not be destroyed by cynicism or bitterness.
 Judy Cannato, Field of Compassion: How the New Cosmology Is Transforming Spiritual Life (Sorin Books: 2010), 8.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 28, 157–158.
Story from Our Community:
Father Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations help me relate to others with greater empathy. In our suffering world, this wisdom inspires me with hope in all that transforms us with humility and connects us to greater LOVE. Kindness. Compassion. Peace. Joy. Blessings. Gratitude. —Maria G.
Image credit: Manuel Alvarez Bravo, El ensueño (detail), 1931, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: What is she thinking? How do you feel seeing her? If you could, what would you say to her? Would you notice the weight she’s carrying?
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