Practising compassion

Two important themes from our Lent course on Karen Armstrong’s book on compassion last night:

How to develop empathy – as a first step in ‘treat others as you would like to be treated yourself’?  Having explored how films can help us enter another’s world and expand our sensitivity, we turned to Christ’s Passion.  Peter Abelard (d. 1142), had his own explanation of the Atonement:  “when we look at the crucifix, our hearts break in sympathy and fellow-feeling – and it is this interior movement of compassion and instinctive empathy that saves us” (Armstrong p.83). 

We identified some features of the Passion that we could relate to in modern experience of power and judicial process, such as the night arrest (illegal immigrants), the public spotlight (media cameras and angry crowds shouting at police vans), the abandonment and isolation (Terry Waite as a hostage in Lebanon) – and the condemnation of the innocent (Jo Yeates’ landlord in Bristol last December).  Maybe this draws us near a bit to the human emotional side of Jesus’ suffering.

The other theme was how to choose how to act or even feel towards someone else – especially if your instinct is to be hostile.  If you choose to act in a Christ-like way, is that authentically ‘you’?  When does it become truly ‘you’?  And how does the liturgy help us to move our feelings in a more Christ-like direction?  We thought that the Peace was pretty important here.  Actually saying ‘Peace be with you’ to someone you are at best indifferent about can, in the long term, change things.

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